Thursday, 27 June 2013

The Bone Season - Samantha Shannon

It is the year 2059. Several major world cities are under the control of a security force called Scion. Paige Mahoney works in the criminal underworld of Scion London, part of a secret cell known as the Seven Seals. The work she does is unusual: scouting for information by breaking into others’ minds. Paige is a dreamwalker, a rare kind of clairvoyant, and in this world, the voyants commit treason simply by breathing.

But when Paige is captured and arrested, she encounters a power more sinister even than Scion. The voyant prison is a separate city—Oxford, erased from the map two centuries ago and now controlled by a powerful, otherworldly race. These creatures, the Rephaim, value the voyants highly—as soldiers in their army.

Paige is assigned to a Rephaite keeper, Warden, who will be in charge of her care and training. He is her master. Her natural enemy. But if she wants to regain her freedom, Paige will have to learn something of his mind and his own mysterious motives.

The Bone Season introduces a compelling heroine—a young woman learning to harness her powers in a world where everything has been taken from her. It also introduces an extraordinary young writer, with huge ambition and a teeming imagination. Samantha Shannon has created a bold new reality in this riveting debut.

Are you ready for the next big series? Because this is going to be it. The first in a new seven book series by a young British author discovered in a creative writing class at Oxford, The Bone Season is very much the new, hot thing. Not to mention the movie rights have already been picked up.

I had no idea what The Bone Season was when I picked up an ARC at BEA but the cover intrigued me and I had kept hearing more and more about how big it was going to be. Intrigued, I started it pretty quickly and found myself drawn in, spending hours on the couch because I simply couldn't put it down.

The best thing about The Bone Season is the sheer power of imagination it took to write it. Even more so than in most of the other dystopian books that have come out in the past five years or so, Shannon has created a completely immersive world, the kind that shows instead of tells and gives you feelings more than words. She also has created an entire new vernacular, based mostly upon Victorian slang, to the point where, for a good while, you're not entirely sure what any of the characters are talking about. There's a glossary in the back for some of it but mostly you pick it up as you read. It's a bit hard to push through at first but once you begin picking it up, it stays with you.

Shannon has created an entire world of psychics which is also beyond brilliant. Although it takes a bit to figure out who's who, it's actually quite interesting to see what each different kind of voyant can do and how that affects them and the world. The idea of auras, of dream walking, of soothsaying is something that everyone is familiar with at a very basic level but this new hierarchy, complete with a rewritten history of Victorian England and onward, shows not only a interesting new world but the talent that Shannon possesses. Not only am I excited for more in this series but I'm excited for more by Shannon in general.

Paige, our heroine, is pretty refreshing mainly because she's tough as nails. One of my favorite things about her is that, even as she warms up to people, she stays true to herself. For example, even when she starts to think that Warden, her "master," might be not all that bad, she still tries to escape whenever an opportunity arises. Because, hey, of course you would. There's none of that hemming and hawing that other heroines go through. Paige puts herself first and that's what she needs to do.

Other characters are also great. Warden is perhaps a bit dry but I do admire how much he puts up with. Paige's gang back home are some very interesting side characters, from her fairly creepy boss to her friend from childhood, each of them memorable in a way that some books with multiple characters can't pull off. 

I just have to mention again how amazing Shannon's new history is. I'm always impressed by people who write alternate histories and this one works particularly well. The major changes from our world start in Victorian England, giving the present (which is our future) an odd Victorian feel to it. I also loved the references to past Irish riots (which are called the Molly Riots causing me to giggle every time) which feel completely in line with the timeline she's established.  

This book is the first in a series and I will admit that I'm not entirely sure how it's going to stretch through seven novels. It seems like a three or four book story at most. But I like Shannon and if she can pull something out in her second novel that shows me how this is going to continue forward, I'm all for it. I have a feeling she's going to do it. Watch out for this book because pretty soon, it's going to be everywhere.

The Bone Season comes out August 20th from Bloomsbury.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

It's Not Love, It's Just Paris - Patricia Engel

Patricia Engel’s collection of stories, Vida—a New York Times Notable Book and finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award—established its author as one of our country’s best young writers. Her first novel is a vibrant and wistful narrative about an American girl abroad in Paris, who navigates the intoxicating and treacherous complexities of independence, friendship, and romance.

Lita del Cielo, the daughter of two Colombian orphans who arrived in America with nothing and made a fortune with their Latin food empire, has been granted one year to pursue her studies in Paris before returning to work in the family business. She moves into a gently crumbling Left Bank mansion known as "The House of Stars,” where a spirited but bedridden Countess Séraphine rents out rooms to young women visiting Paris to work, study, and, unofficially, to find love.

Cautious and guarded, Lita keeps a cool distance from the other girls, who seem at once boldly adult and impulsively naïve, who both intimidate and fascinate her. Then Lita meets Cato, and the contours of her world shift. Charming, enigmatic, and weak with illness, Cato is the son of a notorious right-wing politician. As Cato and Lita retreat to their own world, they soon find it difficult to keep the outside world from closing in on theirs. Ultimately Lita must decide whether to stay in France with Cato or return home to fulfill her immigrant family’s dreams for her future.

It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris is a spellbinding love story, a portrait of a Paris caught between old world grandeur and the international greenblood elite, and an exploration of one woman’s journey to distinguish honesty from artifice and lay claim to her own life.

I picked up It's Not Love, It's Just Paris at BEA after the Literary Fiction talk, a talk where I ended up picking up every book mentioned. I probably wouldn't have grabbed it on cover and title alone but the publicist gave it a good blurb and the author had some great work under her belt so I felt I'd give it a try.

You can tell right off the bat that Engel has a great voice. She speaks very clearly and it has a sparseness that conversely draws you in. Little details and quotes are inserted in just the right places to draw a pleasant picture without drowning you in unnecessary words.

The plot itself is a tad cliche: girl goes to Paris to find herself. I did find Lita quite unique, however, if only for her backstory. She constantly reflects on the family she left back home and how she loves them so intensely but also feels the burden of that love. At the beginning she is very standoffish which I understand because I would be that way but is also not great for a narrator because it takes a good while for anything to happen. She eventually gets going, though.

The secondary characters aren't very standout. They all are super interesting but there are too many of them so none of them get any time to be fleshed out. A few less girls in the house could have led to deeper characters (and foils!) but to each his own.

Cato, the love interest, is a bit bland for a longer time than perhaps necessary but there is definitely a lot there. Once again, I would have liked to hear more about him and his past but Engel only gives us so much. C'est la vie, I suppose.

Ultimately, I suppose it's the very end of the book that got to me, the bit after Lita's time in Paris, the last few pages where you realize that this was all reminiscing years after the fact. Seeing where Lita's life had gone is not surprising but it's also strangely moving in how realistic it is against the fantasy that was her life in Paris. The phone call she receives, as well, I felt was incredibly touching and even though I didn't think I was super connected to the novel, my heart broke a tiny bit. It felt real.

Engel is a gorgeous writer and I would love to read more from her. If you want to find out who you are or just love Paris, this is the book for you.

It's Not Love, It's Just Paris comes out August 2013 from Grove Press.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Blood & Beauty: The Borgias - Sarah Dunant

Is there a family in history more dazzling, dangerous and notorious than the Borgias?

A powerhouse of the Italian Renaissance, their very name epitomizes the ruthless politics and sexual corruption of the Papacy.

The father, Pope Alexander VI, a consummate politician and a man with a voracious appetite both as Cardinal and Pope.

The younger Juan, womanizer and thug, and their lovely sister, Lucretia, whose very name has become a byword for poison, incest and intrigue.

But how much of the history about this remarkable family is actually true, and how much distorted, filtered through the age old mechanisms of political spin, propaganda and gossip?

What if the truth, the real history, is even more challenging? 

"Blood & Beauty: The Borgias" is an epic novel which sets out to capture the scope, the detail, the depth, the colour and the complexity of this utterly fascinating family.

I picked up Blood & Beauty at BEA and as it was coming out somewhat soon, I decided to give it a read. I have heard a lot about the Borgias, especially with the Showtime series but had never actually read anything myself so I was intrigued by the novel.

One interesting aspect in Dunant's work is how different the family seems from the typical portrayal of them. Instead of these conniving villains we have a family that, although it does do horrible things, does it for the good of each other and there's real love there. Rodrigo definitely loves his children and does almost everything for their good. Lucretia is almost a family pawn, doing everything she's told and slowly dying inside because of it. It was an interesting choice and made reading easier due to the fact that they weren't horrifically abominable.

However, it did tend to make Lucretia a bit of a wimp. To be a daughter of the Borgia is a hard job and I'm sure Lucretia gave as good as she got but in this novel, she simpers for a good three quarters until one more death puts her over the edge. That Lucretia became interesting but, alas, she only had sixty or so pages to unfold. 

The book ends abruptly and it seems as if it's asking for a continuation which would make sense as there's still plenty of Borgia history to go over. If there were a continuation, I would probably read it because I do like Dunant's style, full of lovely turns of phrase and wonderful description, but I don't know if it will happen. 

I enjoyed this book and went through it quite quickly, despite it's considerable length at roughly five hundred pages. The section divides make it a quicker read, as does the way it skips through time, even if it does make it hard to figure out how much time has passed at points. If you enjoy historical fiction or Italian history, I would say to pick it up.

Blood & Beauty comes out in July from Random House.

Monday, 10 June 2013

A Killing in the Hills - Julia Keller

In A Killing in the Hills, a powerful, intricate debut from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Julia Keller, a mother and a daughter try to do right by a town and each other before it's too late.

What's happening in Acker's Gap, West Virginia? Three elderly men are gunned down over their coffee at a local diner, and seemingly half the town is there to witness the act. Still, it happened so fast, and no one seems to have gotten a good look at the shooter.  Was it random? Was it connected to the spate of drug violence plaguing poor areas of the country just like Acker's Gap? Or were Dean Streeter, Shorty McClurg, and Lee Rader targeted somehow?

One of the witnesses to the brutal incident was Carla Elkins, teenaged daughter of Bell Elkins, the prosecuting attorney for Raythune County, WV. Carla was shocked and horrified by what she saw, but after a few days, she begins to recover enough to believe that she might be uniquely placed to help her mother do her job.

After all, what better way to repair their fragile, damaged relationship? But could Carla also end up doing more harm than good—in fact, putting her own life in danger.

I got a copy of this book at BEA and although I didn't really know much about it, I really liked the cover (the colors are gorgeous) and I'm always down for a murder mystery. Or, as a woman I passed at BEA who had also grabbed a copy put it, "What's this? Murder? I like murders. Yoink."

If there's one thing I'm going to give Keller the most points for, it's how beautiful West Virginia sounds. You can tell she's from there because the setting descriptions are written with such love and respect that you can feel the love seeping from the page and making you, just a little bit, want to plan a trip to see those mountains. I've never been to West Virginia personally but it definitely made me nostalgic for childhood summer trips to Durango, Colorado to visit grandparents. That beautiful ruggedness, mountains and nature sounds and a lack of urbanity resonated through the entire work.

The plot itself wasn't terribly original but it was well written. The idea that prescription drugs were the big baddy was somewhat novel to me and I enjoyed that. If I wasn't shocked by each twist and turn, I at least wanted to see what was happening, eagerly page turning. 

The characters, as well, are well drawn. Despite what the back of the book leads us to believe, the main character is Carla's mother Bell, the prosecuting attorney that has come back to West Virginia to try and do right by her hometown, even if she has a dark past and had left her high-powered husband to do so. I liked Bell and was intrigued by her past. I also enjoyed the local sheriff, Nick, who was another lovely character who wasn't a love interest or a best friend but more of a focal point for Bell to come back to when she was going out of control. I thought their relationship was original and new.

I liked that there were actually two stories going on in the narrative, as well. Normally a murder mystery is quite focused but in this case, the murder happens while Bell is already working a case with a child's death and she has to continue investigating while also looking into the murders. It felt true to life and I enjoyed the diversity.

I really enjoyed this book and I'm happy to see that another book in the same universe, Bitter River, is coming out in September. I will definitely seek it out.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

How to Create the Perfect Wife - Wendy Moore

Thomas Day, an 18th-century British writer and radical, knew exactly the sort of woman he wanted to marry. Pure and virginal like an English country maid yet tough and hardy like a Spartan heroine, she would live with him in an isolated cottage, completely subservient to his whims. But after being rejected by a number of spirited young women, Day concluded that the perfect partner he envisioned simply did not exist in frivolous, fashion-obsessed Georgian society. Rather than conceding defeat and giving up his search for the woman of his dreams, however, Day set out to create her.

So begins the extraordinary true story at the heart of How to Create the Perfect Wife, prize-winning historian Wendy Moore's captivating tale of one man's mission to groom his ideal mate. A few days after he turned twenty-one and inherited a large fortune, Day adopted two young orphans from the Foundling Hospital and, guided by the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the principles of the Enlightenment, attempted to teach them to be model wives. After six months he discarded one girl, calling her 'invincibly stupid,' and focused his efforts on his remaining charge. He subjected her to a number of cruel trials-- including dropping hot wax on her arms and firing pistols at her skirts-- to test her resolve but the young woman, perhaps unsurprisingly, eventually rebelled against her domestic slavery. Day had hoped eventually to marry her, but his peculiar experiment inevitably backfired--though not before he had taken his theories about marriage, education, and femininity to shocking extremes.

Stranger than fiction, blending tragedy and farce, How to Create the Perfect Wife is an engrossing tale of the radicalism—and deep contradictions—at the heart of the Enlightenment.

This book was a recommendation from a friend and when you read that summary, I'm pretty sure you automatically pick it up. Doesn't it sound great? Man tries to mold perfect wife out of orphans. It's just simultaneously creepy and unbelievable which makes the fact that it's a true story all the better.

It only gets better as you read it. Day is a fascinating character that ends up having ties to a lot of well known figures in the eighteenth century. The sheer number of women he asked to marry him is also astounding. He's honestly one of those characters that you don't really understand but you feel a slight bit of pity for. He's kind of a horrible man but he has good intentions. He also does a great amount of charity work and gives a ton of money away. It's just that he has this one, strange obsession.

Each of the women that comes into Day's life is completely different and that's part of the reason this book is so fascinating. Beyond the two girls that he tries to bring up in a perfect image, there's the friend's sister, the friend's ward, the random girl he meets at a party, the woman who is somehow the perfect match for him but he just can't see it. Each chapter is named after a different woman in his life and to watch these woman interact with Day (and realize just how crazy he is) is ridiculously entertaining.

Perhaps my favorite part of this book is the ongoing sadness of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He writes a book on a theory of education that sets the world talking. Now, this book was supposed to be simply theory and shortly finds out that all these people are trying to raise their children to the letter of his novel. This is part of where Day gets his ideas. Day's best friend tries to raise his son this way. And every time you check back in with Rousseau, you can almost see him sighing in disgust that no one understood that you shouldn't treat real humans like that.

This book is as much a fun look into the way Enlightenment thought interplayed with modern social customs in the eighteenth century as it is a book on why Day is a ridiculous person. Read it for both reasons. I very much enjoyed this book and would recommend it to any of my friends.

Monday, 3 June 2013

The Shining Girls - Lauren Beukes

In Depression-era Chicago, Harper Curtis finds a key to a house that opens onto other times. But it comes at a cost. He has to kill the shining girls: bright young women, burning with potential. He stalks them through their lives across different eras until, in 1989, one of his victims, Kirby Mazrachi, surveys and starts hunting him back.

Working with an ex-homicide reporter who is falling for her, Kirby has to unravel an impossible mystery. 

The Shining Girls is a masterful twist on the classic serial killer tale: a violent quantum leap featuring a memorable and appealing woman in pursuit of a deadly criminal.

I got an arc of The Shining Girls on Wednesday at BEA and immediately knew that it was the next book I was going to read. It was sold to us as "time traveling serial killer" or "Silence of the Lambs  as written by Margaret Atwood." There was no question: this book would be amazing.

Did it live up to my expectations? Well, yeah, pretty much. I couldn't put it down for the next two days. I was drawn in by the characters and the narrative style. Each chapter skips around in point of view and time, letting you piece together what is going on in a way that is not obvious but not confusing, either. 

Our heroine, Kirby Mazrachi, is just the right mix up of spunky and messed up, making mistakes but ultimately taking control of her life. With the time traveling aspect, as well, we get to see Kirby as a child and as an adult, showing how not only the attack but the aftermath and just her mother in general shapes the person that she becomes. This book has been compared to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and I find Kirby waaaaaaay more likable than Lisbeth. 

I also enjoy what we get to see of Harper, our serial killer. Although we mostly see him as he goes about his "work," there are brief glances back that give us hints as to why he is the way he is. There's also the life he lives in 1931, his home era and the way he fights against the house and ultimately succumbs to it. Is he an awful man? Yes, definitely. But he's not a one-dimensional character and that makes him interesting.

The different titular 'shining girls' are also a super interesting part of the narrative. Each is immensely different: different races, time periods, ages, creeds. It's only their potential to be amazing that makes them stand out. While each encounter was invariably sad, I did enjoy getting to know, however briefly, these characters. I especially liked Alice. I could have easily read a book on her alone. That says something about Beukes's ability to create characters: even the ones with two chapters stand out.

The chapters are short which makes this book a rather quick read, helped along by the fact that it's hard to put down. The book races towards the inevitable showdown, answering its own questions along the way. The post-script was a very nice touch, I thought. I'm now interested in reading more from Beukes as I've heard her other books are quite good as well. I'll search those out and you pick this up, okay? 

The Shining Girls comes out June 4th (tomorrow!) from Mulholland Books.