narfna’s #CBR5 Review #99: Cold Days by Jim Butcher

I don’t know what it is about this book, exactly, but I think it might be my favorite in the series so far. I’m giving it five stars because I really like the direction Butcher is taking this series in, and because it had all of my favorite Dresden stuff in it in a more fun way than the last two books, which were five star reads in a more intense way.

The book opens with Harry being in rehab for, well, for being dead for six months. You can imagine the recovery time for that. Mab has got Harry in Winter and is nursing him back to health by trying to kill once or twice a day. Classic Mab. When he’s recovered enough to take up his duties as the Winter Knight, that’s when the fun really starts. On top of most of the sidhe being out to get him, and his friends and family being pissed he didn’t tell them he was alive sooner, Harry has 24 hours to figure out who and what are going to blow up Demonreach, the island that Harry became the magical warden of several books back. If he doesn’t stop it, the explosion is going to take most of Illinois with it and release hundreds of thousands of demonic beings into the mortal world. And he has to do it all while trying to figure out who’s good, who’s bad, and which people in either group want him dead (the answer being lots on both sides).

There were so many things I liked about this book, it’s hard to list them out. I loved the whole tone of the thing, Harry having to face the challenge of coming back from the grave (so to speak — he wasn’t really technically “dead” after all), dealing with Molly and his brother (Thomas and Harry <3) and Murphy. I loved how different in structure and intent this one felt to all the others, especially the first eleven books (the last two broke the mold in their own special ways). I loved the lurk of Mab, and the uncertainty of her intentions. I loved the new fairy, who better end up being Toot’s girlfriend. I loved how the plot actually managed to surprise me, not once, but several times (a rare thing, simply because I read so much). I loved how each of Harry’s interactions with recurring characters show how far he and this series have come. I loved Demonreach, and Harry being inexplicably naked for the entire last part of the book. And I super loved the glimpse of The Big Stakes that we and Harry get, because it sets the whole series in a new context, and hints at the future to come.

The direction of the series from here on out is a complete mystery. Other than the vague hints we get (Harry and Molly working for Winter, for instance, and that giant wall of fighting fairies), Butcher’s previous rulebook just doesn’t seem to apply. There’s a lot of stuff in play right now, and it’s very exciting. Can’t wait for Skin Game to come out on 2014, and it’s been a blast catching up on this series this year.

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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pyrajane’s review #25: Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies: On Myths, Morons, Free Speech, Football, and Assorted Absurdities by Chris Kluwe

Beautifully Unique SparkleponiesI didn’t know who Chris Kluwe was until his wrote his amazing piece for Deadspin that many know as Lustful Cockmonsters.  Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr. wrote an open letter to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti asking him to force his players to shut up about civil rights.  Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo spoke out in favor of gay marriage and Burns decided he should use his position to try and silence free speech.  It was disgusting.

Kluwe’s response was beautiful.  Click that title up there and read it if you haven’t.  I respect a man who uses “Holy fucking shitballs” when making an informed argument.

As his response exploded all over the internet, I found his twitter account (@ChrisWarcraft) and found out he was in a band AND was a gamer.  Holy shit, this guy was awesome.  NFL punter AND a nerd?  Fuck yeah.

When I found out he was writing a book I was super excited.  Here’s a guy who is smart, loves to read, plays games, and has a realistic understanding of how an NFL career works.  I heard him on a few podcasts and he’s really funny and clearly does his research about things that are important to him.  I especially like his attitude about the NFL and how it doesn’t last forever and you better have backup plans.

I really wanted to love this book, but it was just a solid OK.  He chose a few pieces that had already been published and I agreed with those choices.  For a few of them he added commentary or quick notes about things that have changed since the original publication.

Read more about what I liked but why I was mostly sad over on my blog.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #76: Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris

sedarisIt’s been a couple of years since I read my last Sedaris, so I was about due. I picked up his latest book, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls from the library as an audiobook. It was a good decision. (As a point of interest, one of the essays does have owls in it, but nowhere, at least that I could find, does it contain the word ‘diabetes.’ The title is somewhat of a mystery to me.) I’ve also never read a Sedaris by audiobook, and it was delightful. He’s a scamp, Sedaris is, and he doesn’t fail to entertain.

Highlights include: European dental care, Sedaris’s hilarious (and weirdly understandable) obsession with picking up litter along the English countryside where he owns a home, multiple stories with Pater Sedaris walking around in nothing but his underwear, some wonderful anecdotes about his always amusing family, the story of his first colonoscopy, and the titular essay, in which Sedaris struggles to find a stuffed owl to give to his long-suffering partner, Hugh.

This wasn’t my favorite Sedaris, however, for a couple of reasons. There were a couple of essays that made me feel weird. I can’t remember the first one, but there was this story with baby turtles that made me sick to my stomach (it was well-written, I just couldn’t handle what happened). The other reason is that there were several shorter essays at the back of the book that Sedaris wrote specifically to be read aloud by others. He did this when he learned that children have been reading his stories aloud in competitions and wanted to be helpful. I think this is a funny idea, but the problem with it is that I didn’t actually care for any of the stories. I much prefer his non-fiction, I think.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #75: I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley

13642966Look, I appreciate the idea of having a Christmas themed mystery with dear Flavia and her community of imaginary fellow Britons, and while Bradley doesn’t disappoint with the characters, he totally drops the ball on the mystery in this one. It’s so short and thrown in there he might as well have not done it at all. His inattention to the mystery on this one made it feel more like a cash grab than a novel. When Doctor Who does a Christmas special, it’s still got a monster in it, you know? And usually a really good one.

It’s Christmas at Buckshaw, and the De Luce family is in dull spirits. They’re still having money issues, and as a result, Colonel De Luce has hired out Buckshaw for Christmas. Famous movie star Phyllis Wyvern is shooting her latest film there, and the whole village is practically twitter-pated about it (including Flavia’s sisters, Daphne and Ophelia).

So of course Flavia develops a special bond with Ms. Wyvern (who is a bit of a bitch, but who has interesting hints of depth that never get explored), and of course she turns up murdered half-way through, and of course it’s Flavia who finds her body. I want to make it clear, though, that I’m only complaining about those things being predictable because of how it turned out. You expect a certain amount of repetitive predictability in stories like these, but the mystery is solved in the blink of an eye, and most of the leg-work happens off page, so that we as readers have absolutely no chance of solving it ourselves (which annoys me in mysteries to no end). It’s just there BAM all of a sudden, and then it’s over.

Luckily, the parts with Flavia’s family were good. Flavia has a couple of revealing moments with her sisters and with her father that lead me to believe interesting things are coming in future books. Dogger also gets some nice characterization, although we still don’t know exactly why it is he knows so much about birthing babies (there can’t have been much need in the army for a gynecologist, if that’s what he is by training).

Anyway, moral of the story: if you’re going to write a mystery novel, make sure you actually care about the mystery part. Otherwise you get pissed off readers who want to punch you in the stomach.

pyrajane’s review #24: I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales from a Happy Life Without Kids by Jen Kirkman

I Can Barely Take Care of MyselfJen Kirkman and I don’t want kids.

Happily for me, that’s pretty much all I ever have to say about this fact.  Kirkman, on the other hand, has enough experience with being told that she’s going to change her mind that she was able to write an entire book about it.  I don’t understand how she hasn’t slapped anyone.

I became a fan of Kirkman from watching Chelsea Lately.  My husband got into her stand up after hearing her phone calls with Paul F. Tompkins on The Pod F. Tompkast.  I then saw her episodes of Drunk History and decided that yeah, she’s really fantastic.  She was so sincere and wanted to be sure that Oney Judge is honored and that she was wearing pants when talking about Frederick Douglass.  What’s not to love?

Her book is her memoir, based on the theme of not wanting kids and how there are a lot of people in this world that just cannot comprehend this.

I’m lucky that I don’t have to deal with this same pressure.  My mom and mother-in-law aren’t baby crazy and are fine not having grandchildren.  A lot of my friends don’t have kids, so it’s not a big deal.  I’ve never been in a situation where I felt like I was being attacked because my husband and I aren’t having kids.  It’s just not a thing.

Read the rest of my short review over on my blog…

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #65: The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag by Alan Bradley

weedI really enjoyed the first book in the Flavia de Luce series. Half the reason I read books in the first place is atmosphere. If you build me a world that’s fun or intriguing or exciting to hang out in, I will be very willing to forgive any missteps in your books, and if there aren’t really any, I will fucking love them. The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag is a credible successor to The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, but it’s got some pacing issues that severely hampered my enjoyment at the beginning. The second half of the book is a lot of fun, but it was only my previous affection for the character and the world she lives in that kept me from becoming frustrated with the book.

Flavia is still an eleven year old genius, obsessed with chemistry (and poisons in particular). My favorite thing about her as a character is how Alan Bradley plays with the contradictions in her character. On the one hand, she’s bitingly intelligent, able to understand and make connections that the adults around simply can’t. On the other, she’s a child who doesn’t really feel the emotional weight of the events going on around her, until she’s faced with moments she can’t really deal with (like in the first book when her investigation put her life in danger, and in this one when faced with a mother’s grief, or the rage of another character I won’t name). She’s a child who puts herself in adult situations that she is often able to navigate more easily than the adults around her, mostly due to the innocuous nature of being an 11 year old girl — people are willing to let her in and tell her things they wouldn’t otherwise — but also because she doesn’t have established modes of thinking, everything is new to her. At the same time, so many other things go over her head, because for as smart and knowledgeable as she is, she’s still rather innocent.

In this one, Flavia finds herself in the middle of an investigation into the death of a famous puppeteer. Rupert Porson and his assistant, Nia (not sure of the spelling as I listened to it on audiobook) have traveled to town and arranged to put on a couple of shows for the local parish in exchange for their van being fixed. Why a famous puppeteer has come to such a small place as Bishop’s Lacey in the first place is part of the mystery. Rupert is a bit (okay, a huge) jackass, who clearly beats Nia, and who is also a womanizer, but he turns out to be a genius at his job. Too bad he gets murdered and stuff. Flavia finds herself unable to stop from investigating everyone and everything surrounding his death, which in turn delves up the mystery surrounding the death of a young boy five years earlier.

The mystery in this one wasn’t as interesting as Flavia herself, and Bradley takes entirely too long in the set-up. Rupert isn’t even murdered until almost half-way through, and waiting for him to kick the bucket was excruciating. I know Bradley was trying something a little different by having Flavia get to know the victim before he died (so that she would be uniquely placed to solve his murder), but it didn’t quite work out logistically as well as it did emotionally for me. Still an enjoyable read, though. I especially liked the audibook version (although Jane Entwistle does tend to overread some lines with too much glee that I thought should have been read in a more normal voice).

I am most interested in Flavia herself, and she’s the reason why I’m so excited to read the rest of the books in the series. I find her fascinating: her dead mother, the way her sisters treat her so horribly, and the way she misinterprets their treatment (another example of her being too emotionally immature to understand what’s really going on). I’ve heard others describe her as a sociopath in training, but I don’t think that’s right. It’s more like she’s emotionally damaged from losing her mother and her obsession with death has taken the form of poisons and murder investigations. She’s also a child, and children are kind of sociopaths anyway, until they learn that actions have consequences (something that usually has to be learned the hard way). Sure, she’s always trying to poison her sisters (not death poison, just you know, the uncomfortable kind), but I don’t see any difference in this behavior than the fact that when I was mad at her, I used to lick all of my sister’s silverware when I was setting the table, and never told her. (Melissa, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry. But you did shitty stuff too. Don’t even lie.) Flavia just has a more sophisticated set of tools than the rest of us did at her age.

Anyway, rocky second book, but I’m in for the rest of the series.

[3.5 stars]

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #61: At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson

at homeAt Home: A Short History of Private Life is Bill Bryson’s answer to his own work, A Short History of Nearly Everything, which was about basically the entire universe*. What’s the opposite of the history of everything? Apparently the history of just one place: the home.

*I haven’t read it yet and maybe never will, because he talks about the supervolcano in it, and just . . . no. I can’t deal with the supervolcano. LA LA LA.

Bryson and his family live in a country parsonage in England, and Bryson became curious first about the history of his own home, and then logically, about the history of homes in general. We spend so much time thinking and writing about the big events in history, the wars and famines and political upheavals, but very little time thinking about the history of the objects and small places we encounter in our everyday lives. It’s amazing the amount of history bound up in something as common as salt, for instance, or our mattresses, or the dining table, etc. As he states in the book, “Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.”

As always, Bryson is delightful. He obviously takes such pleasure in uncovering these small, almost forgotten moments, and he always does so with affection for even the most unscrupulous of his subjects. There was so much in this book that I feel overwhelmed just thinking about it. It seems like every other page I would be shocked into saying something like, “What? Really? That’s where that came from?” I’m sure I will never be able to remember it all, but it was damn fun reading all the same. There was a bit in the middle when he went on and on about architecture and architects when I was rather bored (apparently I don’t like reading about architects, which is something I’ve just learned about myself), but for the most part everything in here was great. I listened to it on audibook, which was a good choice, I think. The only thing about the audiobook: I was a little thrown by Bryson’s accent. He’s American by birth but has spent decades with an English wife, living in England, and it ends up sounding like his accent is having an identity crisis. This didn’t inhibit my enjoyment of the book. It was just a bit strange.

Still didn’t enjoy this as much as I enjoyed Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country, but it’s pretty hard to top a book about Australia, honestly, because that place is CRAZY.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #53: Changes by Jim Butcher

changesEverybody give Jim Butcher a slow clap. He’s finally written a book that impressed me so much that I’m willing to give it five stars. (It only took him twelve tries to get there!) I’ve been waiting for something awe-inspiring in order to bust out the five star rating, and I’m pretty sure this book qualifies.

Changes is a rather literal title. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find something within its pages that doesn’t represent a change in Harry Dresden’s life (or that of his friends and family), whether its something as minor as dealing with a broken wizard’s staff, or as major as learning you have an eight year old daughter that you never knew about. A daughter who has been kidnapped by a vengeance-seeking noble of the Red Court vampires. Harry deals with both in this book, and the whole range of the spectrum in between.

Actually, let’s list out all the changes that happen in this book, so I can better illustrate for you just how monumental this book is in terms of the whole arc of the series (this should be obvious, but DO NOT READ IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO BE SPOILED):

1. In the very first sentence of the book, we (and Harry) learn that he has an eight year old daughter, Maggie. She is the product of his one night reunion with Susan back in Death Masks. Susan never told him about her, and sent the little girl off to live with a foster family so she would be safe. Harry understandably becomes very, er, UPSET, about most of this information and remains that way for the rest of the novel.

 Harry’s office, which has been with us since the very first paragraph of the first book, was blown up by Red Court vampires. (They get away with this, we learn, because they actually own the building. In a neat bit of continuity, Butcher mentioned that Harry’s rent went up a couple of books ago in passing, and it turns out that the Red Court buying the building was the reason why.)

3. The White Council is sidelined by a mysterious illness, and new Senior Council member Christos makes his power play. After books of inaction and thumb twiddling on the part of the Council, this is pretty significant.

4. Harry receives an inheritance from his mother: her knowledge of the ‘Ways’ of Faerie, an extensive collection of passages to and from the Never Never, which enables Harry to travel quickly from one place in the world to another.

5. Harry learns (finally, the dolt) that his apprentice Molly is in love with him.

6. Harry’s infamous car, The Blue Beetle, is finally and utterly destroyed, after eleven books of it being wrecked and fixed, over and over again. (Inside the car is also his wizard staff, which is also destroyed.)

7. Harry’s apartment is burned to the ground by minions of the Red Court, along with all of his worldly possessions (excepting a few illicit magical items he had hidden from the FBI, like Bob the Skull and The Swords). Again, this is a place well established in these books. It is kind of mind boggling that all of these things  Butcher has set up for as givens in his storyworld are just completely disappearing.

8. Harry gives in to Queen Mab and becomes the Winter Knight in exchange for the extra power he needs to save his daughter. (He also needs her to heal him, as he breaks his back falling off of a ladder while trying to rescue his neighbors from their burning building and seems to be paralyzed from the weist down.) This is actually probably the biggest change in the book as it has so much potential not only to change the way Harry views himself, but how he lives, and how the books from here on out are structured. He essentially gives up his freedom and independence in order to save his daughter, something inherent in the Dresden worldview as built up over twelve books, and as such, is not an act we can take lightly or that can easily (if ever) be undone in the world Butcher has created.

9. Susan becomes a full vampire of the Red Court and Harry kills her in order to destroy the entire Red Court (the machinations of this are too complicated to explain, just read the book). This is also a huge moment for him, as he murders someone he loves, knowing full well it doesn’t have to be done. He also takes responsibility for her murder of Martin, which caused her to become a vampire in the first place, as he essentially goaded her into it, knowing what the outcome would be (the destruction of the Red Court, the end of the war with the Council).

10. The entire Red Court is wiped out, thus ending the war that has been going on since book three, Grave Peril, when Harry rescued Susan from the Red Court vamp, Bianca. It’s fitting that he should be the one to end it, as he was the one that started it. This potentially has implications for the entire world as Butcher has created it, as Harry mentions that there were a lot of Red Court vamps hiding out in plain sight in powerful positions worldwide, and now they’ve just simply vanished.

11. Harry learns that his mentor, Ebenezer McCoy, is also his maternal grandfather.

12. Murphy loses her job as a cop thanks to the events of the book, and will presumably take up the holy sword Fiddelachius, and become a Knight of the Cross. This still leaves Amoracchius to be taken up by some unknown person in a later book.

13. In the aftermath of saving Maggie (Maggie having been bundled away to safety by Father Forthill) and before he takes up the mantle of Winter Knight, Harry finally makes a move on Murphy. She doesn’t reject him.

14. Oh yeah, and Harry dies. The book ends with him being shot by an unknown assailant while on the deck of Thomas’s boat, The Water Beetle, while waiting for Murphy to show up for their date. From what I’ve heard of book thirteen, Ghost Story, this is not a condition he will get out of in a hurry.

If I hadn’t already read a couple of interviews with Butcher where he pretty much stated it outright, this book would have clued me in that Butcher is playing the long game with this series, and this book was clearly designed as the pivot point. The series was often unpredictable before Changes, but it followed a general formula, where certain things were always a given. Now, though. That’s pretty much all shot to hell, and the next eight books in the series will be very different than what’s come before.* Because it was designed as a pivot point, a lot of previous storylines paid off here, and it was incredibly satisfying for that to happen after having spent twelve books with these characters. One of the advantages of television, which is why I always compare this series to TV, is that spending long periods of time with characters creates a different type of relationship between them and the reader.

*Supposedly, there will be twenty books in the The Dresden Files proper, to be followed immediately by a trilogy to be called The Big Apocalyptic Trilogy (tentatively to be titled, cutely, Hell’s Bells, Stars and Stones, and Empty Night, after the magical profanity Harry is prone to using).

Anyway, all of this is to say that I’m REALLY glad I stuck with this series after almost giving up on it after book three, and thanks to my buddy Dan in particular for giving me the recommendation in the first place. (One of my favorite things on the internet is this sentence he wrote in his review of Turn Coat: “It’s next to impossible for me to write anything about this series without it devolving into incoherent fanboy sputtering followed by a loss of consciousness.”) I figured if someone could possibly love something that much, it must be worth sticking around for. It took a while, but I turned out to be right. So thanks, Dan!

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #40: Turn Coat by Jim Butcher

3475161I’m going to keep this (relatively) short because I’m about 7 gajillion reviews behind, but this series just keeps getting better and better. There aren’t many series that I’ve read that up the ante like this as they go along. In fact, most start out really promising and then totally biff it along the way. The Dresden Files just keeps getting more interesting and exciting and emotionally complex. I think a lot of that might have something do with Butcher having started this series as a formulaic urban fantasy noir, but he’s taken it to another place in the decade plus since. It’s definitely not ‘epic fantasy’ but one might choose to use the phrase EPIC when describing it, if only because starting a new Dresden book lately makes me want to get on the floor and roll around and maybe squeal for a little bit.

Turn Coat is the culmination of the series-long feud between Harry and the Warden known as Donald Morgan, a hundred year old wizard who is also the de facto executioner for the White Council, and who’s had it out for Harry ever since he was sixteen years old. But this time, Morgan’s in trouble. He’s being framed for the murder of a member of the senior council, a murder which would also implicate him as a traitor, and he wants Harry’s help to find the real murderer. Why Harry? Because Morgan knows Harry has experience in being unjustly vilified, and also he would literally rather die than see an innocent man condemned. And yes, the irony in this situation is delicious, for Harry and for us as readers. On top of that whole situation, Harry is being chased by a scary-ass monster called a Skinwalker, and his involvement in the case threatens not only his own safety, but that of his friends and family.

I didn’t like this one as much as I liked Small Favor or as much as I’m liking Changes, but it’s pretty damn good. Morgan has always been a frustrating character for me, and he remained so for most of this book, but his arc wraps up nicely by the end. The flavor and intensity of the plot movement in this book hints that big stuff is coming, and Harry takes some pretty significant losses. The fact that these losses seem to largely be foreshadowing is a frightening thought. (And if some of them don’t get, um, fixed, I’m going to throw a shit fit.)

On to book twelve.