Recent and Future Reading

One of my 2013 blogging goals (if vague aspirations to do more and better can be dignified with the term “goals”) is to get back to writing fuller reviews. But since I didn’t get much reading done over the holiday season, I’m going to start with a short round-up and a look at what’s next on my TBR. This list definitely reflects the romance burn-out I felt at the end of the year. But that finally seems to be over!

What I Read Over the Holidays:

Sharon Shinn, Heart of Gold (fantasy-romance) This came up in a Twitter discussion of Shinn. Shinn creates a world that allows her to explore race, gender, class and power through the conflict between the matriarchal Indigo (blue-skinned) and patriarchal Gulden (gold-skinned). I appreciated that this didn’t feel like a straight-up allegory of our world but a kaleidoscopic reflection. The story was engaging but slight compared to something like LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness (and maybe comparison to a classic is not fair). Heroine Kit is a radical Indigo who’s the lover of a Gulden revolutionary (and, she discovers, terrorist); Nathan is an unassuming, fairly conventional blueskin scientist who falls into heroism more or less by accident. I enjoyed their story but found Nathan too perfectly noble to be fully believable. This is a romance in the sense that Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South is: the romantic relationship is an integral plot thread and part of the way the characters’ politics develop, but the political issues are central, not just window-dressing for opposites-attract characterization. I liked that about it.

Peter May, The Blackhouse (mystery) I learned about this one from an Open Letters Monthly column. Edinburgh detective Finn MacLeod is drawn back to his childhood home by a murder inquiry–and the murder of course turns out to have a lot to do with the past. The Isle of Lewis setting was fascinating and seemed very well-drawn, but I found the childhood backstory overwhelmed the plot and didn’t always seem relevant to the present day; moreover, the past was so overloaded with tragedies they ended up seeming trite. The final twists and revelations came so close to the end that we didn’t really see Finn coming to terms with them (and, again, they felt stale). I listened to one of May’s France-set mysteries a while ago and I think he’s Not For Me.

Gabrielle Hamilton, Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef (memoir, audio narrated by Hamilton) I loved the opening section on Hamilton’s childhood and the vivid descriptions–of food, especially. Other parts were more frustrating. From my Goodreads review: “This isn’t exactly a chef memoir, though, despite the subtitle–big chunks of that apprenticeship, like much of her youthful travels, are left out. . . . In general, I’d like a little more self-reflection and less self-regard from a memoir. For instance, the passage where she goes to the conference for cooking school students on women in the industry, is highly and smugly critical of the views of her fellow panelists, but never actually says anything to the students about what she thinks was deeply annoying. And the parts about her marriage managed to reveal intimate stuff without saying much about what any of it really meant to her or how she felt about it.” Still worth a read if you like foodie books. My husband read it around the same time, and we had a great conversation about it (we pretty much concurred in our opinions).

Daniel O’Malley, The Rook (fantasy: supernatural MI-5) It was another OLM mention that made me pick this up, though unlike Maureen Thorson, I wouldn’t equate popular with pulpy: this books is the former, but not the latter. I also don’t consider the time I devote to reading popular literature “blameworthy” (or maybe I do, but I’m trying to shed that ridiculous guilt). This also ended up on Booksmuggler Thea’s Best of 2012 list. I was hoping for another Ben Aaronovitch experience, but it wasn’t. If Aaronovitch’s London is the contemporary multicultural metropolis of Zadie Smith or Bend It Like Beckham, O’Malley’s seemed a bit more old school spy story: a supernatural Sandbaggers or Le Carré amped-up with Bond-movie action. It lacked the depth and some of the wit and charm of Aaronovitch for me, but it was a fun page turner. At the start of the novel, someone new wakes up in Myfanwy Thomas’ body, and she has to figure out who she is and how to cope with her new life (as an agent for the Checquy, essentially a supernatural MI-5 and 6), helped by the meticulous letters and files prepared by the old Myfanwy, who knew she was going to be stripped of her memories and identity. I liked the way the strengths of the two Myfanwys balanced each other (and that a male author wrote an urban-spy-fantasy novel full of strong female characters) and that they developed a kind of relationship through those letters Myfanwy 1 wrote to a future self who might never read them. The letters became an info-dump that slowed the story by the end, though, and I would have found it more interesting to see Myfanwy 2 struggle a bit more to come into her powers and identity. There was at least a whiff of Mary Sue about her. I will be super unsurprised if there’s a sequel, and I’d read it.

What I’m reading now: Romance! Vicki Essex’s Back to the Good Fortune Diner for the book club thingy and Courtney Milan’s The Duchess War (which I’m loving and would have finished already if The Rook hadn’t been due at the library today).

Up Next: I accidentally jump-started my “read more literary fiction” resolution by not managing my library requests well and getting about 7 books at once (I need to start using the wishlist function). I had to make a reading schedule. I know I can always return them unread and request them again, but my deadline guilt kicks in. A lot of these I found on various year-end “best” lists.

Up next week, Liza Klaussmann’s Tigers in Red Weatherwhich I had vaguely heard of but basically plucked off the library shelf because of the cover. And Glaciers by Alexis Smith, because it sounded appealing, but also because it’s the sort of book usually classified as “for women” and it made a guy’s “best of” list at Book Riot, which intrigued me–and which is where I heard about it. Since I’m now missing romance, I’ll probably work one in somewhere too. Not sure what yet.

On audio, I think Kristin Cashore’s Graceling (I read it a few years ago, but want to re-read before I go on in the series). And I will get Jayne Ann Krentz’s Dream Eyes when it comes out Tuesday, because her books on audio are my crack.

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8 Responses to Recent and Future Reading

  1. Rohan says:

    In an attempt to make an OLM sweep of this, here’s a link to Joanna Scutts’s review of Blood, Bones, and Butter for you!

    It seems like most of my blogging friends are off to a much better start to 2013 than I am. I really should finish a book or something.

  2. Alex says:

    I had the same problems with the Peter May books. I did try the second in the series, but the fact that I can’t now remember the title is indicative of the impression it left on me. I’m relieved to find someone else who thought that backstory was overwhelming. His work has had such good reviews here in the UK that I thought I must be missing something.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      For me, it didn’t satisfy as genre fiction–it didn’t give me enough of what I want from a mystery–and the backstory that took the place of that wasn’t original or interesting enough to compensate for that. Also, the Big Secret at the end and the way it was revealed bothered me. I really, really hate when that is used as a mere plot device in a way that trivializes it, and that was how I felt in this case. And, I thought it was a cheat. I didn’t see hints of the truth earlier.

  3. For some reason (maybe because many of her books are driven by the romantic relationships although Heart of Gold is less so than many of hers) I compare Shinn to romance authors rather than to SF authors.

    And yeah, I think the comparison to The Left Hand of Darkness is unfair, since many in the SF community consider TLHOD the greatest SF novel ever written.

    It’s been a long time since I read Heart of Gold and I’ve often wondered how it holds up post 9/11. I read it before then, and I wonder if the higher profile terrorism has these days would make it harder for me to swallow.

    “Blood,” the novella that’s a sequel to Heart of Gold (it’s published in the anthology Quatrain) is by far my favorite of Shinn’s novellas and the best thing she’s written in the past decade or so IMO. It’s written from the POV of a Gulden young man.

    I always recommend Shinn’s angel series (which begins with Archangel) as the best starting place for romance readers. They are some of her most romantic books. I would love to hear what you would make of Jovah’s Angel, in particular.

    • I forgot to add that I think Shinn writes some of the most romantic closing paragraphs. When I forget other details about her books, I almost always remember the last lines. How I love the final paragraph of Heart of Gold! My copy is currently loaned out, or I would quote it in full.

      But here, in lieu of it, is the last paragraph of Angelica:

      His arms went around her first, bulky and uncertain; it was like being taken in the massive embrace of an oak, unused to clasping humans. Next his wings enfolded her, more cautiously, settling down on her with the weight and color of sunlight. She kissed him– or he kissed her–there was, in the whole world, nothing but mouth and cheek and feather and arm. He held her so tightly that there was not even air to breathe, but she did not need air. She had Gaaron, and that was enough.

      Maybe that’s why I measure her against romance authors — because she writes some of the most romantic happy ending books out there. I wish there were more authors in the romance genre who could match her for breathless romantic moments like those.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        Yes, I think to compare this book to Left Hand of Darkness is unfair. It doesn’t set out to be the same thing. It’s interesting–I’ve seen very sci-fi cover images, but mine had a very Gothic/Regency romance looking one (which really didn’t give a feel for the book’s setting, but maybe better captured the content/genre).

        I really liked the slowly developing romance and the way it didn’t follow the conventions of genre romance (e.g. they don’t even meet until halfway through the book, and the heroine is in love with someone else for longer than that). And I loved why they came to fall in love with each other, what each loved about the other. I have Archangel on audio and this book definitely made me want to try more of hers.

      • willaful says:

        Oh, I love Angelica. It’s one of those books that makes me feel sad for people who refuse to read romance that doesn’t have sex in it.

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