narfna’s #CBR5 Review #88-95: The Walking Dead, Vols. 9-16 by Robert Kirkman

walking-dead-book-six

And thus concludes my journeys into the mind of Robert Kirkman, volumes 9-16. It has been a foul year. SPOILERS AHOY:

Vol. 9 — Here We Remain

I’m glad I took time off from reading this series. That last volume was brutal.

Vol. 9 of The Walking Dead handles the events of Vol. 8 the only way it could (and still keep readers from wanting to kill themselves from sadness). The first half is relatively quiet, with Carl and Rick moving slowly down the road, ambling to nowhere basically, and dealing with their grief over the loss of Lori and baby Judy, as well as their other friends. On top of being physically ill, Rick seems to be losing his mind, hallucinating and just generally feeling horrible about himself. Carl has a really neat — and sad — moment where he realizes he’s not a kid anymore, and he could survive without his dad if he had to. Thinking about kids living in this world Kirkman has created is just the worst.

[Full review here.]

Vol. 10 — What We Become

Aaaaand I’m already starting to get fatigue again with this series. I mean, these guys just can’t catch a break, and the minute you think Kirkman can’t pull anything worse or more disgusting or more horrifying out of his sleeve, he does.

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narfna’s #CBR5 Review #87: The Pirates! In An Adventure With Napoleon

7936477So, these books are pretty much the silliest things ever.

They’re satire, sure, but the satire is so silly, it’s lost most of its bite. And not that I’m complaining, mind you, because I laugh my ass off when I’m reading them. Every one of these books has the same basic structure: the Pirate Captain gets an idea or has a problem, the crew resists due to common sense, they run into one or two famous historical figures, have verrrry deeply silly adventures, and then everything is reset at the end. The pirates don’t have real names (except for Jennifer, the lady pirate who used to be a Victorian gentlewoman), but are instead called things like ‘the pirate with a scarf’, ‘the albino pirate,’ and ‘the pirate who liked kittens and sunsets.’ There are anachronisms EVERYWHERE. All the pirates are completely neutered. The worst thing any of them do in this outing is trick Napoleon into pretending he’s having a dream where he meets famous historical generals (and Napoleon remains entirely convinced it is in fact a dream).

Actually, it’s hard to convey just exactly how silly this book is, so I’m just going to give you some examples:

“The best thing about he seaside,” said the albino pirate, “is putting seaweed on your head and pretending you’re a lady.”
“That’s rubbish,” said the pirate with gout. “The best thing about the seaside is building sexy but intelligent looking mermaids out of sand.”
The rest of the pirates, spread out on the deck of the pirate boat for their afternoon nap, soon joined in.
“It’s the rock pools!”
“It’s the saucy postcards!”
“It’s the creeping sense of despair!”

“All the best people aren’t appreciated in their lifetimes,” Scurvy Jake continued. “Look at Baby Jesus — nobody took him seriously. They thought he was a tramp!”

“Listen, do you know what I’d be doing if I was still a Victorian lady instead of a pirate?” Jennifer persisted.
The pirates didn’t have a clue, but the pirate with long legs tried a guess. “Having a shower?”

“Well, I think it’s very exciting to have Mister Napoleon as a neighbour,” said the albino pirate. “I mean to say, he almost conquered the whole of Europe.”
“And I ate the whole of that mixed grill that time. Not ‘almost ate,’ you’ll notice. I finished the job,” said the Captain with a scowl, moodily buttering his Weetabix.

“It’s not the same on dry land,” muttered the pirate with a nut allergy. “Without the romance of the sea, pirating just seems like quite antisocial behaviour.”

And then of course, there’s the Pirate Captain and his impeccable logic:

“Baby kissing is a tried and tested way of getting votes, Captain.”
The Captain didn’t look convinced. “Thing is, number two, what’s the voting age nowadays?”
“It’s eighteen, sir.”
“Exactly!” The Pirate Captain waggled an informative finger. “So there’s not much point lavishing all this attention on babies when they can’t even vote for me, is there? I should be concentrating on the eighteen-year-olds. And you know which other bit of the electorate is overlooked? Women. So really it makes a lot more sense for me to spend the morning kissing eighteen-year-old women.”

Napoleon is pretty great, too. At one point he writes this fake suicide letter in an effort to discredit the Pirate Captain, after a giant squid washes up on the beach:

To Whom It May Concern,

I cannot go on any longer. I know people think us giant squid are just unfathomable monsters of the deep, but we have feelings, too. And it is time the world learned the terrible truth. For several years now the Pirate Captain and I have been carrying on an illicit affair. Many times I have asked the Pirate Captain to do right by me, but he refuses, always telling me that he cannot be seen having a relationship with a giant squid because of the harm it would do to his public image. Also, sometimes he hits me. Anyhow, just yesterday I discovered I was pregnant with the Pirate Captain’s secret love child! I told the Pirate Captain about this and he flew into a rage and said he would never help support his half-squid/half-pirate progeny and then he hit me some more. So now I am going to commit suicide by beaching myself.

Goodbye, cruel world
The Giant Squid

Really, that’s all I have to say about this book.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #86: City of Glass by Cassandra Clare

city of glassHOO BOY.

So, I finished this book over two months ago, and that means that this review is not going to be as, er, detailed as I had originally planned. It’s also going to be much, much shorter, so either boo or cheer as appropriate (personally, I do enjoy a good long review, especially when the book in questions is contentious). And, oh boy, is City of Glass contentious.

City of Glass picks up where City of Ashes left off, with Clary and Jace in the throes of misery due to not being allowed to bone one another otherwise INCEST. All the men in her life also insist on trying to ‘protect’ her with their ‘masculinity.’ Everybody ends up in the Shadowhunter city Alicante (in the magical, mythical country of Idris), even poor vampire Simon. Forgive me for my incomplete summary, but I do not remember why everybody was going to that stupid city. I’m sure there was a reason, but it’s not important. What is important is that nobody wants Clary to go, so of course the first thing Clary does is break laws and rules, and go to the city. Anyway, once everybody finally makes it to the city, Valentine breaks the city’s wards (which should be impossible!) and warns all the Shadowhunters even though he doesn’t want to kill them and waste their pure blood, he totally will if he has to, and it’s totally not at all exactly like Voldemort and the Battle of Hogwarts. Nope, not at all. Then this guy named Sebastian shows up and a bunch of shit starts happening, and Clary and Jace are even mopier and lovestruck than usual, and they make out in her bed and also on a hill, even though they think they’re brother and sister at the time, which is . . . I can’t even . . . GAG. Then more stuff happens, and Sebastian is really Clary’s brother! And Jace isn’t! And Valentine dies! And Clary can do special things other Shadowhunters can’t! And other stuff!

Damn. Lost opportunity here. I really should have written this review two months ago. My snark would have been epic and cleansing to my soul.

Before I start on what I didn’t like about this book, I do have to give Clare credit for the few bright spots. The mid-book angel-in-basement thing was surprising and really interesting, mythology wise, and Simon’s storyline continues to be the most interesting of everything. This one also had a much faster moving plot, with even the Clary/Jace moping scenes having the extra benefit of being wackjob certified crazy (seriously, making out all the time), and things actually happen! The main villain (aside from Valentine, who remains underdeveloped and not frightening) is actually really creepy and effective. Idris was pretty cool as well, but either because it’s YA, or because she chose to focus on other stuff, it wasn’t as developed as it could have been.

Actually, that’s one of my main issues with this book. Clare and I differ vastly on what’s interesting in her story. All the things I found really interesting (Simon, etc.) were underdeveloped and in some cases ignored almost completely in favor of other, more melodramatic and rather stupid developments (so. much. melodramatic.moping). Clary is still nothing but a cipher, with Jace continuing be neutered by his love for her, and Clare’s incest obsession borders on the perverse. Her prose is still middling to bad, but is disguised by the presence of an actual plot. She also telegraphs her ‘plot twists’ a mile away. Anyone who didn’t know after page fifty or so that Jace was not actually Clary’s brother, and Sebastian was, is basically an idiot. Sorry if I just called you an idiot. The only truly surprising thing that happens in this story is the stuff with the Angel, and it’s not a coincidence that’s the only bit I really *liked*.

And yes, she still steals things from other stories like mad. From front to back, this trilogy has been an exercise in pastiche writing, but in the worst way possible. I’ve seen everything that’s in these books before, and I’ve seen it better. If you’re going to do pastiche and steal people’s stories and ideas, at least do your own take on the stuff. (Clare didn’t.)

And of course, I have a nagging suspicion that she has a tendency to steal her best lines from other people:

Aline was the first one to break the silence. Fixing her pretty, dark gaze on Simon, she said, “So – what’s it’s like, being a vampire?”

“Aline!” Isabelle looked appalled. “You can’t just go around asking people what’s it’s like to be a vampire.”

I’m not going to lie. This sentence gave me a rage blackout and I woke up to find I’d hurled the book across the room and maybe screamed too, I think, because my throat hurt afterwards.

Look, you can tell me all you like that this is an “allusion” or “homage” but what it actually looks like to me is an author who can’t come up with clever things to say on her own using a quote from one of the most clever movies in the past decade, and changing the words just enough so that people who aren’t as intimately familiar with Mean Girls as I am think it’s something she came up with on her own. And that is not okay. Not to mention, her use of the construction completely misses the sly greatness of the original. This is probably something I would be annoyed about with anyone else, but it makes me genuinely angry with Clare because of the entire context surrounding her writing, which I’ve already written about ad nauseaum. She has already used up all her free passes with me. And who knows what other things she’s paid ‘homage’ to in this book? I could have read many a lifted line and not even known it. And that pisses me off.

Overall, I don’t think I will be be going on with this series for its cash grab ending ‘second trilogy’ (when this one ended just fine), or its five million prequel and sequel series yet to come. So, goodbye Cassandra Clare. Goodbye Jace and Magnus. Goodbye Lupin Luke. Goodbye Clary, you incestuous fucko. I shall not miss you.

[2.5 stars]

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #85: City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare

city of ashesCity of Ashes is the weakest installment in Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments Trilogy,* and that’s saying something. I’m not giving it one star, because I did rush through it in some enjoyment, but as discussed in my previous review of City of Bones, it was enjoyment based mostly on seeing what nutbag thing was going to happen next rather than enjoyment based on good characters, good plot, and exciting developments. Book one had the advantage of introducing the world, and book three (as problematic as it is) has a crazy amount of plot development and action. This one mostly felt like filler to me.

*I’m not counting books 4-6, which sound mostly like cash cows to me.

The basic plot of City of Ashes is that Jace and Clary believe they are brother and sister and they are also in love with one another, so this causes them angst. That is 75% of the content of this novel. Jace basically turns suicidally depressed and Clary decides to try her best friend Simon on as a romantic partner, mostly because she wants someone to mack on, and she can’t mack on Jace. 95% of her thoughts surround Jace, how beautiful he is, how tragic, how much her DNA wants to be with his DNA forever BUT IT ALREADY IS BECAUSE THEY ARE BROTHER AND SISTER WAAAAAHHH. There’s also some stuff in there about Simon turning into a vampire, Jace’s adopted family rejecting him because they think he’s working for Valentine (?), and Valentine causing trouble by stealing the Mortal Sword, killing all the Silent Brothers, and threatening to call up a shit ton of demons to overrun the Earth. Clary also seems to be developing SUPER DUPER SPESHUL MAGICAL POWERS that no one has ever seen before, and Alec continues to deny that he is gay for Magnus Bane.

The stuff with Jace and Valentine is probably the most interesting, or at least it had the most potential to be interesting. Jace’s desire to be a good person and his love for Valentine as his father conflict with one another in a way that could have been mined for content, but Clare mostly just uses it to cast suspicion on Jace that the reader never believes for a second. The stuff with Simon, again, also interesting, although I laughed out loud at the scene that pushed Simon to finally visit the vampires. They all visit the faerie underworld or whatever it’s called and because Clary tastes faerie food, the faerie queen won’t let her go until she’s been kissed with the kiss she truly desires. I will give you three guesses as to whose kiss that is, but you will get it in one. Simon witnesses this, er, display, freaks the fuck out, and then goes and gets himself turned into a vampire.

Really, though, I don’t blame him. I might even sort of understand the impulse for Clare to milk the Jace/Clary tragedy for all its worth, as long as she didn’t cross the line between conflict and exploitation. All the pining doesn’t cross the line. It can easily be interpreted as both characters coming to terms with their awful circumstances. But that kissing scene? WAAAAAY crosses the line. She doesn’t just manufacture a moment for her to characters to kiss. That would be bad enough. And she doesn’t just have them kiss each other quickly and be done with it. She doesn’t even make it a lingering kiss filled with regret or whatever. No. What does she have Jace and Clary do? FULL ON FUCKING MAKE OUT PASSIONATELY IN FRONT OF EVERYBODY AND EVERYONE THEY KNOW. WHILE THINKING THEY ARE BROTHER AND SISTER.

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narfna’s #CBR5 Review #84: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

guernseyMy sister gave me this book as a gift two or three Christmases ago. I put it on my shelf and forgot about it until a couple of months ago when she guilted me about not having read it. And really, she had a valid point. I’m usually the one who recommends books, and she always reads them, so when she does bother to give me a book I’ve never read before, the least I could do is return the favor. Unfortunately, I had somehow lost my copy, possibly in one of my several moves, possibly due to other unknown factors. So I had to go out and buy a new copy, and that fucker was $15.

Publishing industry, if you’re listening, $15 is too fucking much for a little 200 plus page book.

Guernsey is an epistolary novel that takes place post-WWII on the island of Guernsey, where an impromptu “literary society” popped up in response to the German occupation there. The main character is an author who is corresponding with the island’s inhabitants for research purposes, but she soon finds herself directly wrapped up in their lives.

Anyway, I was a little lost at first, what with the epistolary style and the fact that it just kind of jumps right in. I was just like, “huh?” for about the first ten pages or so, and then BOOM I was kind of in love. That feeling didn’t last all the way through the book, sadly, as the ending did feel a bit contrived and the main character felt a bit shoehorned in, but it was just such a happy little book I don’t even care. If you don’t like emotionally indulgent books, you probably won’t like this, but if you like a little sap and cheese with your steak (I don’t know, it’s late), then you should probably pick this up. The parts where they recount their war experiences were fascinating, and the members of the literary society made me want to move there and join just so I could hang out with them, the weirdos.

All in all, good rec from my sister. God, it’s only taken her twenty-six years to prove useful to me. JUST KIDDING. (That last part was a test to see if she’s reading this. Go about your business.)

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #83: Ghost Story by Jim Butcher

Ghost_Story_ButcherI am really, really glad I didn’t give up on this series. It took longer than it probably should have for the books to get this good, but now that he’s reached the middle of his series, Butcher isn’t afraid to get all experimental and I’m totally loving every second of it.

Changes ended with Harry Dresden being gunned down by a mysterious assailant and sinking to his death in the cold waters of Lake Michigan. (I mean, what other way could he have ended a book that featured so many life-altering changes to Harry’s life, most of them bad? It seems obvious in retrospect.) Only, because this is fantasy, dying doesn’t really prevent us from following Harry to his next destination.

I’ve read books where characters momentarily die and visit the afterlife, but I’ve never read one where the narrator stays dead for any significant period of time, and I’ve certainly never heard of an established character in a long-running series doing something like this*. Of course, the novelty is a large part of the fun, but I also think Butcher does a really good job exploring the ramifications of Harry’s death not only for Harry, but for all his friends, family, and the city of Chicago as well. Harry has to navigate his new, er, lifestyle and the reactions of those he loves, all while mayhem — in typical Dresden Files fashion — threatens to break loose.

*That doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened before, just that I’m not aware of it if it has.

The book also ends with a couple of hopeful yet chilling twists that I won’t spoil, just in case you haven’t read it yet. But it’s good, trust me. I really don’t understand why people didn’t like this book — from what I understand on the internets, it was pretty controversial for some reason? I’m not seeing it. So what the hell. Five stars! (It’s probably more like 4.5, but I’m feeling generous, and the ending more than made up for any dragginess in the middle.)

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #82: The Bitter Kingdom by Rae Carson

bitter kingdomThis was a great ending to a great series. Rae Carson sets a standard for writing competency that other lesser YA authors would be wise to measure themselves up to. It might not sound like a compliment when I say that Rae Carson’s best quality as a writer is her dependability, but it is. While her writing style doesn’t really lend itself to WOW moments, and those she tries to create fall somewhat flat, the underlying strength of her characters, her prose, and her world-building provides such a good foundation that her stories flow along smoothly even without the kick of a WOW moment.

And honestly, that might be kind of the point here.

The Bitter Kingdom concludes Elisa’s arc in a very satisfying manner. Elisa and her companions journey into enemy territory to rescue the scrumdiddlyumptious Hector, wrapping up plotlines as they journey back to ELisa’s kingdom. I don’t want to spoil anything so I’ll just say while none of the resolutions were earth-shattering, they all made sense and fit in with the overarching themes of Carson’s story.

The focus of the Fire and Thorns was never the war or the political alliances or the religion and mysticism. It was Elisa. Her growth from the first book is kind of astounding, and even more astounding is Carson’s ability to have her main character grow and change so gradually that we barely notice it as it’s happening. It’s only after something happens to call attention to it that we realize, hey, something’s different here.

And I absolutely loved that SPOILER (highlight to read): the reveal of the purpose of Elisa’s Godstone was so anticlimactic. This whole series we — and the characters — have been laboring under the impression that Elisa having that Godstone in her belly would play a significant part in the endgame of the series, but it doesn’t. Elisa’s destiny is essentially to dig a giant hole. All the rest of that stuff, the stuff that’s filled three books? She did it all on her own. And that is really nifty, and not just in the way it’s playing off expected genre tropes, but for Elisa’s character as well.

If you like YA and/or fantasy, this is definitely a series you should check out. It’s smart and well-written and it’s got a good head on its shoulders, even if it isn’t as flashy as others. Looking forward to Carson’s next series very much.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #81: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

fangirl“Real life was something happening in her peripheral vision.”

So I’ve had this review open and up on my computer now for days (weeks, really, since I finished the book almost a month ago now), and I just keep staring at that blank cursor, trying to figure out how to convey all these FEELINGS I am FEELING about this book.

The short of it? I loved this book, and Rainbow Rowell, miraculously, has produced not one, not two, but THREE books that I hands down LOVED this year. And not loved, like that was fun and I enjoyed it, loved like, oh man, this book stared into my soul.

The long of it? Well, that’s what I’ve been having trouble with.

“What the fuck is the fandom?”

Fangirl is Cath’s story, and in many ways it’s a very personal one. Cath is going away to college for the first time, and she’s not very happy about it. Her identical twin sister, Wren, doesn’t want to be roommates and has begun to pull away from Cath, cutting off all her hair, and for the most part, abandoning the Simon Snow fandom she and Cath had been such a huge part of for so long. Simon Snow is basically like Harry Potter in Cath’s/Rowell’s world. The whole world is obsessed with him, and no one possibly more than Cath. She takes refuge in Simon Snow when worrying about her bipolar father becomes too much, when her social anxiety gets the best of her, when she feels Wren pulling even farther away from her. And Cath has fans of her own. Her fanfic, “Carry On, Simon,” gets thousands of hits per day, and almost no one in her “real” life understands her obsession with Simon and his vampire roommate Baz (who in Cath’s world are also secretly in love with one another — so on top of being a fic writer, she’s also a slash fic writer, which puts her even more on the fringes).

Cath’s specific eccentricities aren’t ones I necessarily share, but they’re rooted in a place that feels very familiar to me. Her fear of change, her desire to lose herself in fictional worlds, her inability to connect with other people without quite a bit of effort, her fear of her dorm’s cafeteria (which is just a manifestation of the hard time she has adapting to new habits and places). But most of all, how her love of Simon Snow and the fandom she participates so actively in acts both as a refuge from the outside world, and something that further separates her from it. The ‘normals’ in her life do not understand at all what it is she does, and she takes the opportunity to use that gulf of experience to further alienate herself from those around her. See above quote, which comes form her roommate, Reagan, a brash girl who takes it upon herself to help Cath out of her shell, even though Cath would very much rather be alone.

“I feel sorry for you, and I’m going to be your friend.”
“I don’t want to be your friend,” Cath said as sternly as she could. “I like that we’re not friends.”
“Me, too. I’m sorry you ruined it by being so pathetic.”

The very weird thing about Cath and people like her (me, for instance), is that as much as we crave solitude and distance ourselves from other people very much on purpose, we also simultaneously and conversely crave the lifelines that more extroverted people extend to us, and are often grateful in hindsight for the pushes from others to get us out of our comfort zones. That’s what Reagan does for Cath (and to a certain extent, it’s what Wren used to do for Cath) — pushes her outside of her head and reminds her that she’s capable of more than she gives herself credit for, and that her fears and anxieties protect her, yes, but they also prevent her from experiencing her life.

Reagan is also hilarious. I should mention that part.

And with Reagan comes Levi (delicious, delicious Levi). The two of them comprise Cath’s social circle during her freshman year, as she tries to navigate her new semi-adult life, the pressures of school, and the perils of her major (Creative Writing), which includes a very cute boy slash writing partner named Nick, and a professor that Cath very much looks up to and wants to impress.

If all of this sounds boring, I apologize. Because Fangirl is anything but boring. Cath’s inner life is rich and complicated, full of conflicting desires and feelings. Rainbow Rowell’s characters, and by extension her dialogue, fairly leap off the page. They feel real in a way that characters rarely do in fiction, and the situations they find themselves in, the things they say, feel like things people would actually say. They feel like things my friends and I would say. They feel like friends.

“I’d rather pour myself into a world I love and understand than try to make something up out of nothing.”

Besides the novelty of reading a book about a girl who might actually exist in real life, probably the most notable thing about Fangirl is the way that it engages with fan culture. People who participate in fan culture (and I’m not talking about casual participation here) are set apart from people who don’t. Fan culture is like Fight Club — the first rule is that you don’t talk about Fight Club Fan Culture. And not because it’s something to be ashamed of inherently, but because it’s something that people who don’t participate do not understand. And speaking from experience, regardless of whether or not non-participants actually look down upon participants, there’s this pervasive sense that the shaming is happening behind your back anyway. Fanfiction is not real writing. Fanfiction is plagiarism. Fanfiction is for people who can’t think up their own ideas.

The genius of Fangirl is that while it’s busying demystifying fans and fandom and deshaming them in the process, it also acknowledges that those are actual thoughts people might have (i.e. the reaction of Cath’s professor, or Reagan’s initial reaction — again, see above), it also suggests that the more important realization to be had here is that these are fears Cath also secretly has about herself. Cath loses herself in fanfiction for good reasons, but for bad ones as well. It’s easier for her to keep playing around in Simon’s world than to find herself in her own writing.

“You give away nice like it doesn’t cost you anything.”

So yeah, Fangirl is about growing up and writing and making friends and the power of communities and the bonds between families, but it’s also about love, something else that Cath is afraid to open herself up to. I’m not going to say too much about this aspect of the plot because I don’t want to spoil it, but I will say that Cath falling in love hit me like a ton of bricks to the stomach. I love how Rainbow writes Cath falling in love the same way she writes the way Cath lives, how she keeps everything inside to protect herself, and how satisfying it is when she finally lets herself give in.

I read this book fast and I read it hard, and when I was done I wanted to start all over again. Rainbow Rowell is good. She’s very good. And if she continues to write books like this, I can’t promise I won’t lose my damn mind every time I read one.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #80: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Climbing this book was like reading a mountain. (Wait, what?) I am exhausted, yet fulfilled. I’m also feeling a bit out my depth.

Ever since I finished my Master’s degree two years ago, I haven’t read that many CAPITAL L ‘Literature’ books, mostly out of what you might call ‘avoidance.’ So I’m a bit out of practice in writing anything that isn’t based off of things my hindbrain spews up out of reflex, and I’m definitely out of practice digesting and processing prose that is in any way not designed to deliver pleasure directly to my frontal lobe. So forgive me, please, for not being able to write about this book in a way that would match its own quality, which, by the way, was excellent.

Hilary Mantel’s Booker Award winning Wolf Hall, the first in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy — which continues in last year’s Bring Up the Bodies and will conclude in 2015 with The Mirror and the Light — chronicles the rise of Thomas Cromwell from a poverty-stricken violent son of a drunken blacksmith to the personal advisor to Henry VIII.

I will admit up front that before reading this book, my knowledge of Tudor England was on the limited side, most of it consisting of what I’d gleaned from listening to “I’m Henery the Eighth, I Am” and from reading Hark! A Vagrant, along with wherever else I might have soaked up the occasional tidbit of general knowledge (as a rule, most American children have absolutely no idea what the hell is going on with the history of the English monarchy, excepting to know it was good old King George who fought us in the Revolutionary War, and some king named James wrote the Bible — and we’re lucky if they know even that). I’d heard the name Thomas Cromwell, but I had no idea that he’s generally considered somewhat of a dick, historically speaking, and I still wouldn’t know if it this book were my only source of information.

Certainly you come away from this book with a pretty good idea of the goings on surrounding Henry’s quest for a male heir (and the sometimes surprising motivations behind it) — the annulment of his marriage to Queen Catherine, the disinheriting of his daughter Mary, making himself the head of the Church in England, and the resulting split from the Catholic Church (and all that mess entailed), and of course, his marriage to Anne Boleyn (and the birth of the future Queen Elizabeth, not that anyone in this book regards her of any worth at all — Mantel even has characters referring to her regularly as ‘The Ginger Pig’). But the real focus is Thomas Cromwell, both the private and the public man. We spend just as much time getting to know Thomas’s family as we do with the King’s affairs (and Cardinal Wolsey’s before that).
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narfna’s #CBR5 Review #79: Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig

wendig
I’ve heard good things about Chuck Wendig, and I do enjoy his blog quite a bit, but I’d been reluctant to try his fiction. It sounded a bit more gruesome and, er, intense than what I usually like to read. But when I read his Big Idea post on Scalzi’s website, I knew I at least had to check this one out. I mean, cornpunk? Come on.

In Mr. Wendig’s words, the idea for this book started out as a joke:

“I blog five days out of seven at terribleminds and sometimes the blog posts come easily and other times they come like I’m trying to perform a root canal on a velociraptor and one of the times the blog post came easy was one where I talked about – and asked people to submit their own – SomethingPunk derivatives. You got cyberpunk, dieselpunk, bugpunk, and so forth, and I thought it’d be a whole sack of hoots for folks to invent their own silly SomethingPunk subgenres.
One of my suggestions was “cornpunk.”

I wrote:

The yaddayaddapunks generally posit a world essentially fueled by the yaddayaddathing, right? Everything runs on steam in steampunk, cyberpunk shows a world ineluctably married to futuristic corporate computer culture, and splatterpunk reveals a future where everything is based on an economical ecosystem of gore and viscera. (Okay, I might have that last one wrong.) If you were to assign our current day and age a Somethingpunk name, you might think of it as “Oil-and-Cheeseburger-Punk,” but that really doesn’t have a ring. But. But! Everything is also based on corn. I think with a few knob twists and lever pulls, you could crank that up and offer up a crazy moonbat podunk dystopian future-present where all of Western Civilization is powered by corn and corn-derivatives. It’s all silos and cornfields and giant mega-tractor-threshers and it’ll be all “Great Depression II: Sadness Boogaloo.” And fuck me if this didn’t start out as a joke but now sounds completely compelling. I call dibs! I call dibs on cornpunk! And niblets, too! Corn niblets! I call dibs on corn niblets because they are delicious!

Well, I was pretty much done for after reading that. Even if I didn’t end up loving the book, he’d piqued my interest enough that I pretty much needed to read it right away. I didn’t end up loving it, but I still think it was worth it.

Here are my main thoughts about Under the Empyrean Sky:

1. For most of the book, the story falls victim to the standard YA dystopian plot arc. If you’ve read any amount of YA at all, you can probably guess where most of this is going. This mostly applies only to the worldbuilding.
2. HOWEVER. That standard YA worldbuilding is almost entirely covered with a thin layer of Wendig’s own special brand of whatever it is he’s got going on in his head. The cornpunk thing was by turns mind numbing, intriguing, and horrifying. He’s created a nightmare world out of Americana: farmland, corn, the Heartland . . . they’re all cursed in this book, and it’s bleak as fuck. It actually reminds me strongly of a dystopian version of The Grapes of Wrath.
3. Relatedly, one of the reasons I wasn’t feeling this book in the beginning is that it did remind me so strongly of The Grapes of Wrath, a book which I do not like. In fact, for whatever reason, I really can’t stand books or movies that are set in and around the dustbowl and the Great Depression. I hate them. So that definitely affected my reading of this book.
4. Though it was well-written, and the characters were three dimensional and interesting, I didn’t actually like any of them, so it wasn’t really that fun to read about them.
5. The ending really picked up and once a certain thing happened, I was interested in seeing where else Wendig would take his story, now that he’s got the intro bits taken care of.

All in all, worth checking out even if it wasn’t necessarily my thing — it’s DEFINITELY better than most of the YA shit that gets published these days. And who knows, maybe someday I’ll be brave enough to try some of Wendig’s adult fare. Although I doubt it. In her review of Double Dead, my Goodreads friend SJ strongly implied that one might need brain bleach while reading, and the need for brain bleach is a pretty strong deterrent (I don’t really like zombie books, either). Anyway, Wendig seems cool, even if his books give me nightmares, even his YA ones (seriously, guys, corn everywhere like a virus, people going sterile and getting tumors all over the place . . . gag).

[3.5 stars]