28 March 2014

The Marquise of O- and Other Stories (Penguin Classics)

Summary from Goodreads:

From 'The Marquis of O--', in which a woman is made pregnant without her knowledge, to the vivid and inexplicable suffering portrayed in 'The Earthquake in Chile', his stories are those of a man swimming against the tide of the German Enlightenment, unable to believe in the idealistic humanism of his day, and who sees human nature as irrational, ambiguous and baffling. It is this loss of faith, together with his vulnerability and disequilibrium, his pronounced sense of evil, his desperate challenge to established values and beliefs, that carries Kleist more forcefully than Goethe or Schiller across the gap between the eighteenth century and today.

Francine Prose put me onto Heinrich von Kleist's The Marquise of O- after I read her book Reading Like a Writer.  She recommended him for his sentences and the construction of his plot.  I was also intrigued how her students got into the story of the titular Marquise.  And then there is the story of von Kleist himself, a man who very likely had serious mental health issues (undiagnosed in early 19th century Germany) and died in a murder-suicide pact with a terminally ill young woman.

OK, I'll bite.

In spite of an almost three-year gap - I read "The Marquise of O-" and "The Duel" then the cats managed to shove the book behind the nightstand - I finished this collection of von Kleist's weird, dense, and occasionally supernatural stories of injustice.  Obviously, the Marquise's story is going to have a lot of triggers for some people with it's themes of rape, questionable incest, and the improbably happy ending (it works as a story, trust me, but then also raises the question of how many women throughout history have found themselves in such a position....chilling).  Likewise, "The Duel", "The Earthquake in Chile", and "The Betrothal in Santo Domingo" all deal with the supposed chastity or lack thereof of young women; one story ends happily (one of the few stories in this volume with an "up" ending), the other two do not.  "The Beggar Woman of Locarno" is a short-short piece centered on a persistent phantasm.  "St Cecilia or the Power of Music" invokes the supernatural in the form a saint's protection of her cathedral by striking down trouble-making Protestants.  The longest piece in the book, "Michael Kohlhaas", is the novella-length story of a horse-dealer's long, treacherous, and tragic search for justice against a corrupt system.  Very moving.

Definitely a collection of stories to read alongside von Kleist's contemporaries Goethe and Hoffman.

Dear FTC: I purchased my copy of this book.

27 March 2014

Amazing X-men #1-5

I don't read a whole lot of comics, just something I never got into, but on Preeti's recommendation I tried the new run of Amazing X-men by Jason Aaron and Ed McGuinness.

And, you guys, it's so good!

So, Nightcrawler died in a previous storyline (Messiah Complex? I haven't read it) and Amazing X-men opens on him in heaven and then his father Azazel shows up with all his red BAMFs and starts a battle.  Meanwhile, at the Xavier-now-Jean Grey School household appliances have gone missing.  A group of X-men led by Hank McCoy investigates and they find that blue BAMFs have built some weird machine in the basement.  When the machine is activated is sucks some of the X-men into Heaven and some into Hell and that's when THINGS GET REALLY CRAZY.

It's so, so, so good.  I laughed a lot and loved all the silly jokes.  I'd forgotten how funny X-men comics were.  Case in point: someone's talking about BAMFs and how all they say is "BAMF" and occasionally "Whiskey" and then one of the BAMFs in the frame just goes "Whiskey?"  LOLOL.  Also, there's a beautiful flashback sequence with Nightcrawler and Storm.  Love.  Definite recommend and I'll be continuing with this series beyond the initial story arc because it has a wonderful set-up.

I read this series on my Comixology app, which is really nice.  If you've been hesitant about getting into comics/don't know which ones to read/don't have a comicbook shop around this is a good option.  Easy (too easy) to browse and download and the colors look amazing on my iPad.

Moonlight on My Mind (Second Sons #3)

Summary from Goodreads:

To ruin a man’s life once takes a regrettable mistake.

To do so twice takes a woman like Julianne Baxter.

Eleven months ago, Julianne’s statement to the authorities wrongly implicated Patrick, the new Earl of Haversham, in his older brother’s death. The chit is as much trouble as her red hair suggests, and just as captivating. Now she has impetuously tracked him to the wilds of Scotland, insisting that he return home to face a murder charge and save his family from ruin. A clandestine wedding may be the only way to save her reputation—and his neck from the hangman’s noose.

Julianne has no objection to the match. More and more she’s convinced of Patrick’s innocence, though when it comes to igniting her passions, the man is all too guilty. And if they can only clear his name, a marriage made in haste could bring about the most extraordinary pleasure…

[Note: I also reviewed the first two books in the series, What Happens in Scotland, and Summer is For Lovers, for BR but those weren't saved.]

With James and David married Patrck, the last of three friends, all second sons to peers, is about to tie the knot. He would be quite happy to stay in Moraig as the town's resident veterinarian. Except the bane of his life, Julianne Baxter, shows up sight-unseen and unaccompanied bearing the worst possible news - his father has died, making him the new Earl of Haversham, and the authorities seem bent on arresting him for the murder of his elder brother. To complicate matters, Julianne was seen alone in his house, undressed down to her corset (not Patrick's fault), by the town vicar. There is only one solution: marry Julianne to save her reputation before making the journey to the family estate. Given that Julianne was the one who first raised the possibility that Patrick might have killed his brother, marrying Julianne prevents her from testifying against him (James's idea).

This sets in motion a very convoluted plot involving mistaken identities, quasi-legal proceedings, secrets, and horrible relatives. It was very hard for me to buy the insta-love story given the way it was set up - they danced once and shared a kiss the night before all hell broke loose. It didn't flow smoothly from the elements of the book. (In the book's defense, I got access to the advance for Eloisa James's Three Weeks With Lady X when I was about halfway through Moonlight on My Mind - the James was read cover to cover immediately, twice, so coming back to the McQuiston felt like a step down, unfortunately.) Moonlight on My Mind didn't share the lightness of tone that was present in What Happens in Scotland and Summer is for Lovers. This was a book with far more serious consequences. The series as a whole had a good arc and I'd like to see more from Jennifer McQuiston in the future.

25 March 2014

Sleep Donation

Summary from Goodreads:
From the author of the New York Times bestseller Swamplandia!, and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, an imaginative and haunting novella about an insomnia epidemic set in the near future.

A crisis has swept America. Hundreds of thousands have lost the ability to sleep. Enter the Slumber Corps, an organization that urges healthy dreamers to donate sleep to an insomniac. Under the wealthy and enigmatic Storch brothers the Corps' reach has grown, with outposts in every major US city. Trish Edgewater, whose sister Dori was one of the first victims of the lethal insomnia, has spent the past seven years recruiting for the Corps. But Trish’s faith in the organization and in her own motives begins to falter when she is confronted by “Baby A,” the first universal sleep donor, and the mysterious "Donor Y."

Sleep Donation explores a world facing the end of sleep as we know it, where “Night Worlds” offer black market remedies to the desperate and sleep deprived, and where even the act of making a gift is not as simple as it appears.

I keep meaning to read Karen Russell.  Off-kilter short stories?  Yes, please.  But something always gets in the way.  So I jumped at the chance to request at DRC of her new digital-only novella, Sleep Donation, which is the first offering from the new Atavist Books division of The Atavist.

In the near-future United States, insomnia has become epidemic.  Trish works as a recruiter for the non-profit organization Slumber Corps - she works to recruit good sleepers to donate sleep, particularly young children who have sleep that is considered to have fewer impurities.  Her biggest find has been Baby A, an infant with sleep so pure that she is a Universal Sleep Donor, one of the only ones.  What makes Trish so effective as a recruiter is that her sister Dori was one of the first fatalities of the insomnia epidemic - when Trish talks about her sister, she is still able to tap into that well of grief, the idea that even a single hour of good sleep could have saved Dori's life.  The Slumber Corps and other donation networks are like a house of cards and a single, insignificant act brings the entire construction down. 

The most compelling aspect of Sleep Donation is Russell's use of contaigion-ized disordered sleep.  Those of us in the epidemiology/infectious diseases world will recognize the use of prion hypothesis, the theory that infectious proteins are responsible for transmissible bovine spongiform encephalopathy, Creuzfeld-Jakob disease, kuru, and the real-life (but extremely rare) disease fatal familial insomnia.  No joking - the insomnia epidemic is a "what if" situation that seems dangerously possible.  Mixed with this set-up are comparisons to the ethics and issues of the blood and blood products donation/commerce industry (for those who might be interested, Douglas Starr's book Blood: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce provides an overview of the benefits and pitfalls of the rise of blood banking). 

Russell packs so much into just 120 pages.  Is it ethical for someone to use a personal tragedy for personal gain, no matter how selfless?  And is it healthy to keep that wound fresh for that reason?  What are the responsibilities of a non-profit?  And when does it become necessary to air the dirty laundry?

Sleep Donation is available from the major e-retailers.  It's a great introduction to the Atavist Books line.

Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this title from the publisher via NetGalley.

Three Weeks With Lady X (Desperate Duchesses #7)

Summary from Goodreads:

Having made a fortune, Thorn Dautry, the powerful bastard son of a duke, decides that he needs a wife. But to marry a lady, Thorn must acquire a gleaming, civilized fa├žade, the specialty of Lady Xenobia India.

Exquisite, head-strong, and independent, India vows to make Thorn marriageable in just three weeks.

But neither Thorn nor India anticipate the forbidden passion that explodes between them.

Thorn will stop at nothing to make India his. Failure is not an option.

But there is only one thing that will make India his—the one thing Thorn can't afford to lose...

His fierce and lawless heart.

Eloisa James’s readers will last remember Tobias Dautry (aka Juby, his unfortunate mudlark moniker), illegitimate son of the Duke of Villiers and an opera singer, as a fastidious Oxford scholar holding his baby half-brother on his step-mother’s birthday in the Epilogue for A Duke of Her Own. Eight years have passed since then and now Tobias prefers the name “Thorn.” He is a “chip off the old duke” – ruthless, brilliant, stubborn, dangerous, black of hair streaked with white, and rich beyond imagination but, unfortunately for Thorn’s matrimonial prospects, still not rich enough to completely erase the fact that his parents were never married or erase the childhood experience of mucking in the dangerous waters of the Thames under a cruel master. Thorn has found the perfect lady, Miss Laetitia Rainsford, to keep his house and bear beautiful legitimate children but her too-high-in-the-instep mother needs to agree to the match. To this end he has purchased Starberry Court, the (infamous) residence of a deceased aristocrat, and needs it redecorated in such a manner as to sway Lady Rainsford.

And when a member of the aristocracy requires a household to be lavishly updated and put to rights, they call upon Lady Xenobia India St. Clair to work her magic. Although the short timetable of three weeks might seem impossible, India, the formerly impoverished daughter of an eccentric marquess, finds the house itself - questionable statuary and all - a far easier task than its enticing owner. India and Thorn clash over proprieties, beginning a dizzying round of messages. He teases her about extravagances (painted swallows on the dining room wall! knitted stockings!), she responds by usurping furniture crafted for other patrons at an exorbitant price while ignoring innuendo meant to get a rise out of her (it occasionally works). Before long, Thorn and India are locked in a problem of their own making: how to love and trust when the only person you could truly count on was yourself.

Eloisa James has returned to her acclaimed Desperate Duchesses series with a new installment for the next generation. Thorn and India spar and poke and annoy and argue and have searing make-up sex and confess (they are the Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn of 1799 – if you haven’t seen Pat and Mike or Adam’s Rib, I highly recommend them for the way Tracy and Hepburn just dig at each other with words) and just fall head-over-heels for each other even though the sudden realization of “love” just doesn’t fall in with the plan: get Lady Rainsford to agree to an engagement between Thorn and Laetitia while India will finish her last job at Starberry Court and then get married to someone else. Even some very sage, though veiled, advice from the Duke of Villiers fails to help the lovers sort themselves out. The eventual resolution is very worthy of a batch of soggy Kleenex.

Alongside the hero and heroine, Eloisa stocks her book with fabulous characters. Thorn is the guardian of the orphaned Rose, daughter of one of his band of mudlarks, and a child with such an intelligent, old soul she is an immediate foil for both Thorn and India. Thorn also has a best friend, Vander, who will inherit a dukedom but has a dark childhood of his own. India’s chatty, sweet godmother Lady Adelaide is a dear. Laetitia has a secret and a fantasy that may never come true. She also, unfortunately, has a mother who is the worst combination of Mrs. Bennet, Lady Catherine, and Mrs. Norris (just to mix our Austen references – Eloisa has scattered several throughout the book) and on the receiving end of one of the best lines in the entire book.

That line is uttered by Eleanor, the Duchess of Villiers (the Duke of Villiers gets my second favorite line). I was beyond delighted to find Eleanor and Villiers included in a good chunk of plot. They are my favorite Eloisa couple, both with very smart, distinctive voices. They make me smile. She could write them into all her books and I’d be a happy, happy reader (I may get my wish since I think some of the other Villiers children may feature in future books). Three Weeks with Lady X is out TODAY from your favorite bookseller. Run, do not walk, to the store or your e-reading device/app of choice and BUY THIS BOOK. Happy reading!

19 March 2014

Sex Criminals, #1-#5

So one day I'm just browsing through my Tumblr feed when lo, Wil Wheaton posts about a new comic - Sex Criminals - that just got the big "middle finger" from the iTunes store.  It is apparently full of TOO MUCH GRAPHIC SEX and they won't carry it in the iBooks store anymore.  So Wil told everyone to go pick up the first issue free on Comixology (it's still free, bonus) and then, if you liked what you read, subscribe to it because, here's the trick, if you buy it from Comixology directly then it syncs to your iOS app without having to go through the iBooks store.

I'd never tried the Comixology app but I'd heard good things so I decided this was worth giving it a try just for this comic.  Every review I'd come across said that not only was Sex Criminals wickedly funny it was also very sex-positive and well-constructed.

You guys.  YOU GUYS.  Sex Criminals is probably one of the best things I've read this year ("year" meaning 2013 and 2014 since I started the series back in November).  It is wickedly funny and honest and naughty and original.  If you haven't heard the story, the first issue opens with Suzie and John caught in the middle of a bank heist.  Oops.  From there Suzie breaks the fourth wall to tell her story, one that opens with a less-than-ideal childhood.  When Suzie accidentally learns time freezes when she orgasms - something she calls "The Quiet" - she tries to learn why (probably the best three pages of why we fail children occur while Suzie tries to find honest, non-judgmental answers to her questions about sexuality from adults).  Suzie narrates her coming-of-age with a wry wit until she meets John - who has the same miraculous ability that she has....  John takes over the narration in issue two as the past and present storylines gradually merge together until they run head-on in issue five.

Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky hit it out of the park with this series.  It's a Bonnie-and-Clyde meets pre-code Lubitsch sex comedy with a healthy dose of amazing illustration and equal-opportunity sex jokes.  I mean, look at the issue titles: "Suzie Down in the Quiet," "Come, World", "My Sexual Errors and Misfortunes: 2001 - Present," "Sex Police," and "Going Down."  Chip and Matt included batches of reader mail at the end of each issue and they are so honest in their answers that it's worth the subscription alone just for the letters.  The comic feels like a bonus.  The trade volume issue of #1-5 is coming out April 16 and I can't wait to see what little extras and differences are included.

A note about content:
Now, yes, this is a comic intended for adults.  It is adult humor and for that reason isn't supposed to be sold to minors (the last page of each issue has a big disclaimer about that).  That said, there are a great deal of well-drawn and well-thought out situations that could spark some good discussion. A major point I want to make is that there is NO sexual violence - not toward women, not toward homosexuals, not toward minorities, and not toward men (John does get punched in the face by one of the Sex Police but that's not anything to do with sex).  The sex and curiosity about sex depicted in Sex Criminals is presented as healthy and normal.  It's not for children (they wouldn't understand much of the dialogue anyway) but for a high school-aged teen they could probably identify with the weirdness that goes along with figuring out what's "normal" when it comes to learning about your sexuality.  As to the Apple thing, they're just a bunch of hypocrites.  Look at how many Chris Brown and Robin Thicke albums or erotic romance/new adult books or comics that depict overly-busty, scantily-clad women that they sell.  They don't really have a leg to stand on - so I am more than happy to buy through Comixology.

18 March 2014

Science Fiction: The Best 101 Novels 1985 - 2010

Summary from Goodreads:
Inspired by David Pringle's landmark 1985 work Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, this volume supplements the earlier selection with the present authors' choices for the best English-language science fiction novels during the past quarter century. Employing a critical slant, the book provides a discussion of the novels and the writers in the context of popular literature. Moreover, each entry features a cover image of the novel, a plot synopsis, and a mini review, making it an ideal go-to guide for anyone wanting to become reacquainted with an old favorite or to discover a previously unknown treasure. With a foreword by David Pringle, this invaluable reference is sure to provoke conversation and debates among sci-fi fans and devotees.

There isn't a whole lot to say about this book.  It's a good list of science fiction (not fantasy) books for those who might need an entree into the genre. Like me - I've only read 3.5 of the entries so have found a number of books to check out here.  And there are definitely more than just 101 books since some entries cover more than 1 book; I don't think authors are ever duplicated so this is more like 101 authors from 1985-2010. Beware of spoilers, though, since more than one reveal was blown in the summary.

Drawbacks: some of the cover art was from non-us editions, so may not be useful if searching for the book, and the print was too small.

Dear FTC: I purchased my copy of this book.

12 March 2014

Longbourn

Summary from Goodreads:
• Pride and Prejudice was only half the story •

If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.

In this irresistibly imagined belowstairs answer to Pride and Prejudice, the servants take center stage. Sarah, the orphaned housemaid, spends her days scrubbing the laundry, polishing the floors, and emptying the chamber pots for the Bennet household. But there is just as much romance, heartbreak, and intrigue downstairs at Longbourn as there is upstairs. When a mysterious new footman arrives, the orderly realm of the servants’ hall threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, upended.

Jo Baker dares to take us beyond the drawing rooms of Jane Austen’s classic—into the often overlooked domain of the stern housekeeper and the starry-eyed kitchen maid, into the gritty daily particulars faced by the lower classes in Regency England during the Napoleonic Wars—and, in doing so, creates a vivid, fascinating, fully realized world that is wholly her own.

The servants are never mentioned in period literature except when absolutely necessary.  They were a bit like the wallpaper - always there but meant to be seen not heard.  Which is why Jo Baker's Longbourn caught my eye - not only a great way to write Pride and Prejudice fiction in a way that hasn't been done before but it also contained a great deal of research about what life was like for the servants of landed gentry.  Our protagonist at the outset is Sarah, one of the maids-of-all-work for the Bennets.  She fetches water for washing and laundry, scrubs the dishes and the furniture, helps with the cooking, and plays ladies' maid as needed to the five Bennet daughters.  She is up well before dawn and does not go to bed until after the family has retired.  Her hands are permanently cracked, dry, and blistered with chilblains.  It is not an easy life but one that comes with solid meals and a roof, and security especially if Mrs. Hill and the staff impress Mr. Collins so that he might keep them on after Mr. Bennet passes.

The plot dovetails with Austen's original in many ways, even to the point of providing Sarah with the choice of two beaus: James, the new footman, and Ptolemy Bingley, a biracial servant with the Bingleys who has entrepreneurial aspirations.  Backstories provided for Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and Mr. and Mrs. Hill create a more tangled set of relationships than Austen would have ever revealed on her bit of ivory.  I think someone not familiar with Pride and Prejudice would enjoy this novel, especially if exploring upstairs-downstairs fiction that has become more popular since Downton Abbey began airing.  I'm probably not the best judge because I own eight copies of P&P and have read it so many times I've lost count. 

Austenesque-plot aside, the whole thing was going swimmingly until two things kicked it out of kilter.  The first was a confrontation between James and Wickham and that fallout (I did enjoy how Baker carries Wickham's behavior to a logical place given his predilections); the second, and more troubling, issue came after the Bingley-Bennet/Darcy-Bennet double wedding.  Lizzie takes Sarah with her as her lady's maid and after some kvetching from Sarah about how she's possibly going soft from less work and worry about [spoiler] she resigns her position to go searching for [spoiler].  I'm not sure the point of all the wandering about for years and extended "epilogue"-ness of those last pages (it extends decades into the future beyond P&P and even, i think, beyond the actual concluding action of Longbourn.  Although it all seemed very much about agency and freedom and free will, I don't know why it had to take so long and it took away from the end of the book.

Ending aside, Longbourn is an excellent addition to the Austen fanfic-rewrite-reimagining genre.  Definitely a great book for fans of Pride and Prejudice as well as those who like good historical research into the everyday nitty-gritty.

11 March 2014

Lexicon

Summary from Goodreads:
At an exclusive school somewhere outside of Arlington, Virginia, students aren't taught history, geography, or mathematics--at least not in the usual ways. Instead, they are taught to persuade. Here the art of coercion has been raised to a science. Students harness the hidden power of language to manipulate the mind and learn to break down individuals by psychographic markers in order to take control of their thoughts. The very best will graduate as "poets", adept wielders of language who belong to a nameless organization that is as influential as it is secretive. Whip-smart orphan Emily Ruff is making a living running a three-card Monte game on the streets of San Francisco when she attracts the attention of the organization's recruiters. She is flown across the country for the school's strange and rigorous entrance exams, where, once admitted, she will be taught the fundamentals of persuasion by Bronte, Eliot, and Lowell--who have adopted the names of famous poets to conceal their true identities. 

Meanwhile, a seemingly innocent man named Wil Jamieson is brutally ambushed by two strange men in an airport bathroom. Although he has no recollection of anything they claim he's done, it turns out Wil is the key to a secret war between rival factions of poets and is quickly caught in their increasingly deadly crossfire. Pursued relentlessly by people with powers he can barely comprehend and protected by the very man who first attacked him, Wil discovers that everything he thought he knew about his past was fiction. In order to survive, must journey to the toxically decimated town of Broken Hill, Australia, to discover who he is and why an entire town was blown off the map.

As the two narratives converge, the shocking work of the poets is fully revealed, the body count rises, and the world crashes toward a Tower of Babel event which would leave all language meaningless. Max Barry's most spellbinding and ambitious novel yet, Lexicon is a brilliant thriller that explores language, power, identity, and our capacity to love--whatever the cost.

So I had a coupon and decided to buy this back in November, actually chuckling to myself in the store, "Wouldn't it be funny if the book in the first Book Riot Quarterly box is Lexicon?" And, lo, it was. So I kept the Book Riot copy - complete with a letter and sticky notes from Max Barry - and gifted the other one to my brother and sister-in-law (I had SIL hooked when I asked if she'd like a novel where people learn mind control through language - she practically grabbed it out of my hands).

The world of Lexicon is very inventive and ruthless.  The school is creepy as hell.  Everyone is a hustler, you don't know who is trustworthy or if the old guy in the corner will turn out to be a segmented zombie who will try and kill you. You like and loathe all characters in equal parts. Well, except Will and Eliot, poor sod, who both become far more likeable as the book goes along. And Yeats, whom you never want near you, ever (but the real Yeats wasn't a picnic, either, so not a loss).  Even Emily is hard to like (and she's a terrible hustler, in my opinion, since we never really get to see her successfully work a crowd).

The denouement of the book is pretty genius.  Narrative folds and twists in on itself until the two timelines become impossible to separate.  Naming the town "Broken Hill" was a great idea, calling to mind the "Broken Arrow" scenario of an isolated nuclear incident.  I did wonder why Charlotte Bronte was chosen as a Poet name instead of Emily Bronte - Emily was the better poet, Charlotte the better novelist.. Perhaps due to name confusion with the protagonist Emily.

Apologies to Max Barry - I couldn't read this slowly, as he asked in his note.  But, since Lexicon is the first of his novels that I've read, I'll definitely be on the lookout for more.

05 March 2014

All the Great Operas in Ten Minutes (short)

Back when Bravo and A&E actually had arts programming (in the dark ages of the early 1990s before anyone discovered the ickiness of "reality" television competitions), they would occasionally air short films between the longer programs.  Wicked cool.  I re-found this piece will looking for something else.

It's a Kim Thompson short entitled "All the Great Operas in Ten Minutes".  I love this because a) it's animated using paper art and b) it has a body count.