BUY THIS BOOK: Eolyn, by Karin Rita Gastreich
Friday, February 3, 2012
BUY THIS BOOK: Eolyn, by Karin Rita Gastreich
Friday, January 27, 2012
I grew up at a crafts school. Our house was filled with people who talked about art, who were thrilled with making things; famous artists visited and taught, poets came to read, musicians played. It was an unusual childhood. I grew up to study costume and fashion; I got an MFA in fine art.
So reading Mary Robinette Kowal's Shades of Milk and Honey, a Jane-Austen-inspired novel of Regency-era England, was like coming home. Here is a book written by a person who understands the tactile enchantment of the creative art process. Certainly, like Austen, she brings us misguided romances, unmarried sisters, eligible bachelors, ridiculously hysterical mothers, and an intelligent, plucky heroine with both good sense and awareness; there are plot twists and intricate turns of betrayal and forgiveness, and like Austen, a cuttingly clear view of how people tick; but there is more here, not least of which is the introduction of magic into the mix. For among the accomplishments a young woman in this world of manners and mores is expected to learn, making glamour is as important as music, drawing, and good conversation. Since the heroine, Jane, is adept at creating elegant effects, whether in the living room of her house or as part of the entertainment at parties, we are allowed into her perceptions of how it's done. And it's fascinating stuff.
Ms. Kowal, a professional puppeteer since 1989, knows how to make things. She understands not only how it feels to hold and fold fabric, stitch things together, and stand back to see its effect; she understands the thrill of making an illusion work, of drawing an audience or a viewer so far into that illusion that they forget themselves. Throughout the book, the joy and anguish of creation, of trying and failing and trying again -- when your eyes can see what's wrong but your fingers aren't quite up to it -- shines through. Jane is a gifted amateur, modest about her achievements but enough of an artist to want to know more about how glamour works than she can learn in her sheltered environment; when she meets the impenetrable Mr. Vincent, a celebrated glamourist, she is fascinated by the techniques he uses to make his art. Along the way, we get real insights into artists, the making of illusions, and the difference between dabbling and serious art.
This insight into the workings of artists' processes is surprisingly rare, at least in novels, much less novels as enjoyable and readable as this one. It is difficult for word-people to capture the interiority of art-making, the specific kind of focus required -- a sort of plunge into the materials, a losing of oneself into the moment and movement of it. But Ms. Kowal has clearly thought carefully about this, because glamour in her world is made from folds and stitches and tyings-off of aether, and requires the same dexterity and awareness of draping that fabric entails; the end effect is one of illusion -- and when it comes to illusion, Ms. Kowal is an expert.
Despite the story's attention to social and historic detail, it doesn't allow itself to become bogged down in the trivialities of manners and society. As readers, we care about the characters, and we believe in their passions, and to the purity of the historically accurate narration, Ms. Kowal adds a drop, just the tiniest smidge, of a broader, more contemporary awareness. At the climax, for example, where a father confronts the man who wronged his daughter, the author manages to carry off the complexity of a modern thriller while still nurturing the characters' Regency morals and motivations. And the dark angst of Mr. Vincent smacks of a character from a Henry James novel: real, fraught, difficult, even tragic, but whose leanings toward disaster are happily kept in check by the enforced tidiness of an Austen-like plot.
Ms Kowal very adeptly manages the old-fashioned language, and uses the formulas of Austen's novels to good avail as a skeleton on which to hang the deeper story: that of an amateur finding her art. And the love story here is a true one, as well, with the pain and self-doubt of the heroine a nice foil against the satisfyingly difficult male lead. There are times, just a few, where the story suffers from the mere fact that the author is not, like Jane Austen was, suffering the same specific tribulations as her characters; but this is not really a fair comparison. Mary Robinette Kowal knows her stuff -- her characters, their art, and the times they lived in, intimately and well. And that's what matters.
Friday, January 20, 2012
Friday, January 13, 2012
Release date: January 31, 2012
Genre: YA Fantasy
18 year old Ana has grown up in a world where she is unique: the only one of a million souls who is a “newsoul,” a brand new spirit born into a world where everyone else has been reincarnated, lifetime after lifetime, for more than 500 years. Into each incarnation the reincarnated souls bring their knowledge and experience of past lives; what they do forget is easily refreshed by the journals they leave behind in the public library. But Ana represents a fresh start in a world where new souls have become not only improbable, but impossible. And her life represents not only the new and strange of an uncharted existence, but also the permanent loss of another soul who will never be reborn because Ana lives.
Incarnate is Ana’s story, and follows her quest to find out who she is and why she is a newsoul. More than that, Incarnate is a coming-of-age story, a romance, a story of recovery from abuse, a story of hopes and dreams and questions of faith, science, and reality.
When I first picked up the ARC of Incarnate, I had certain preconceived notions and expectations. For the past couple of years I have been on a YA dystopia reading binge, so I assumed that this novel would be in a similar vein: future dystopian society based on utopian ideals, in which the main character questions society and sparks a rebellion. As this, like so many other YA novels of late, is written in first person, I also had certain expectations about the character’s voice and maturity.
From the first page, all of my expectations were blown away. First and foremost, this isn’t a dystopian society. Incarnate is set in a fully realized fantasy world with its own culture, religion, social structure, and history, and this world is unlike any I’ve ever experienced. I struggled a bit at first with some of the creatures and worldbuilding, until I realized that I was trying to fit this world and society into my preconceived notions about this world and my knowledge of traditional fantasy worlds. Once I let go of my expectations, I really enjoyed exploring Ana’s world, which is completely fresh and engaging. And that’s what I loved most about this book: a new world to explore and a plot that I could not predict.
Ana herself is an interesting heroine. Although there are certain elements of her character that feel like a modern stock YA heroine (I think the choice of first person doesn’t help differentiate her voice much), Ana’s background as an abused child makes her personal journey to discover who or what she is much more challenging and engaging. She is strong, yet she is flawed, and has to overcome some of her trust issues in order to move beyond her upbringing and join society. I did feel Ana lost some of herself and her independence when she became romantically involved with a certain character; her focus also seemed to shift from the mystery of her existence to more trivial matters of “who’s in love with whom.” However, once the action kicked up and the stakes became greater, Ana became a better blend of strength and vulnerability and avoided the pitfall of becoming a moony Bella Swan who thinks of nothing more significant than her love interest.
While the action and pacing were excellent for the most part, I was slightly disappointed in the end for a couple of reasons: first, the book doesn’t really end. Like most YA novels these days, this is the first in a trilogy, so the reader is forced to wait for answers to many of Ana’s most pressing questions. Second, the climax of the novel seemed to lack finesse. Characters only hinted at for most of the novel appeared out of nowhere to take part in the action, answers became new questions, and I ultimately felt that some elements of the story created unnecessary confusion, especially since readers will now have to make a long-term investment for those questions to be answered. Still, the finale did work overall, with lots of great action and suspense, and the loose ends didn’t distract me enough to destroy my overall enjoyment of the novel.
The writing itself is lyrical, well-paced, and pulled me through the story. I had a hard time putting the book down and finished within a couple of days; the combination of good storytelling, lovely writing, intriguing worldbuilding and good pacing pulled me through to the end. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys strong worldbuilding and thought-provoking fantasy that introduces complex questions of religion, rebirth, and existence. I’m already looking forward to the sequel!
Strong Female Characters: @@@@ (4 points out of 5)
Ana’s vulnerabilities and trust issues could make her weak and whiny, but she doesn’t waste time moping about her history; instead, she actively seeks out the truth behind her existence, even when her quest proves dangerous. She does risk losing her recently discovered self for love, a message delivered far too frequently to young girls in our society. However, she pulls out of it, and manages to find a working balance between indulging her affections and focusing on her quest.
Treatment of Women in the Book: @@@@@ (5 points out of 5)
For the most part, the women are strong, engaging characters. But what I found especially engaging was the author’s treatment of love, gender and sexuality overall. People in this book aren’t always reborn as the same gender, and characters who continue to love each other over the course of lifetimes sometimes end up born as two people of the same gender. Their love is natural and accepted by all members of society, and makes perfect sense in the context of the novel. Most of the main characters are also in touch with both their masculine and feminine sides, which leads to well-rounded characters of all genders.
Appearance of Women in the Cover Art: @@@@ (4 points out of 5)
The image of a beautiful young girl in a butterfly mask is striking, and connects well with the butterfly/ metamorphosis recurring theme of the novel. The expression on the girl’s face is an interesting choice, though, as she seems fearful and not strong or questioning , which is more how I view Ana. Still, it’s a lovely, striking cover that will serve the novel well for marketing purposes.
Thursday, January 5, 2012
FINEST SPECTACLE ANYWHERE
MECHANICAL MEN beyond IMAGINATION
Astounding feats of ACROBATICS
The Finest HUMAN CURIOSITIES
the World has ever SEEN
STRONGMEN, DANCING GIRLS
& LIVING ENGINES
FLYING GIRLS, LIGHTER than AIR
MUSIC from the HUMAN ORCHESTRA
BARGAIN ENTERTAINMENT for ONE and ALL
~ No Weapons Allowed ~
As the story opens, you find yourself in a circus, with the lights, the ticket decorated with a golden griffin in your hand. The show is on, and the world outside is drifting away. As you read on, you begin to realize that for the performers in this novel, the outside world is a vague place, a world where boundaries go unseen and where things beyond the confines of the traveling Circus Tresaulti have no meaning and no reality; it is a world of sliding time-spaces; as a reader, you are always certain where you are, but that location is constantly changing. The story runs like a long passageway, with rooms off it that we explore, as we wander down its length, and can take place at any time during the history of the Circus Tresaulti. The combination of these two qualities balance out: the claustrophobia of the close-knit community of the circus, the delicate balance of the social structure -- and sometimes sanity -- of its members are weighed against the looseness, the cobweb lightness of the narrative's billowing timeline and the cloudiness of the surrounding environments through which the circus travels.
The center of the narrative, the string which we follow past all the sideshows of the many small histories, is Little George, rescued from a war-torn world when he was only a child so that he could run all the small jobs of the circus: the poster-pasting, the ticket-taking, the message-running. At the heart of Circus Tresaulti, on the other hand, is Boss, the woman who sculpted each of its members from broken, or even dying, people; with her copper pipes for bones, her clockwork mechanisms to replace muscles, lungs and even a heart or two, the members of the circus are able to fly higher, perform more brightly and, in the end, become more than human. But there is a price: they become detached from the rest of the warring world, existing only within and for the circus, devoting their lives to it. Once changed, they cannot leave; they are tied to it, and to Boss, and to each other, forever.
There are power struggles in the world beyond the walls of tents and trailers, however, and someone is bound, eventually, to notice them as something more than performers; when the safety of one of their members is threatened, the rest of them have to decide whether to come out into the world in a rescue -- and become something different, something more connected -- or to see the circus broken apart and, possibly, meet their own eventual ends. Along the way, the loose cobweb of a narrative narrows and focuses, drawing itself ever tighter and more steely -- like the ribs of a cage, or of the metallic performers -- until you find yourself stuck to the book, gripped by the net of the story, uncaring of the hour.
The only things which even slightly interrupted my slide down the smooth slope of the narrative were a few things were left unsaid. It is clear that the performers have strong needs and emotions, but it is not always clear what they are feeling, or why. I found myself rebuffed from the glowering embers of Stenos' hatred, or the gleam of Bird's madness, merely because so many of their interactions were wordless exchanges of unreadable emotion. But this is a small thing, easily forgiven in the flow of story.
Here are some things I find surprising in this book:
That the world outside is nothing but a series of endless wars, leader followed by dictator followed by junta, endlessly destructive, endlessly violent, and all alike, blurring into a single, continuous centuries-long event.
That Ms. Valentine so seamlessly blends flesh and machine, mechanics and magic, life and death in a way that never once falls into trope. The changed performers, while no longer exactly human, became neither godlike nor zombielike, but instead, more interdependent -- and, in an odd way, more vulnerable.
That she captures, so quickly and carefully, the personalities, conflicts, aches and desires of the people in a circus troupe, without explanation, without apparent effort, and with a deft eye for the enforced clarity and conscious lack of awareness necessary in a tiny, close-knit community.
The truth she brings to the characters: women are as real, visceral, needful and passionate as men, but totally different; and the effect of having parts of oneself become machine by nature do not pass without their imprint on the soul.
And lastly, Ms. Valentine's extraordinary power to make you sit up and pay attention to her wanderings. This is based partly in her queer and tangible subject matter, partly in her ability to weave dreams, and partly in some odd trick of words, words which lead like an old track through a meadow to secret places: you want to follow them, they intrigue you, even if the clues are faint and meandering. And then, like a fine circus act, she draws you up tight, bringing the slow and lovely performance up into a breathtaking, even painful, series of moves that delight and satisfy the reader.
Strong Female Characters: @@@@@ (5 points out of 5)
I liked Bird very much: the woman who is destroyed over and over and still keeps her self; and Elena is a force to be reckoned with. However, Boss holds the keys to the circus, so to speak, and her combination of willpower and democratic leadership is worth reading about.
Treatment of Women in the Book: @@@@@ (5 points out of 5)
The women in the circus are creatures of will and autonomy, who are conscious of their choices and who are as vulnerable and badass as any women we could hope to read about.
Appearance of Women in the Cover Art: Moot (no people at all)
Sunday, November 27, 2011
[We award "chick points" from 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest) for each book we read. Point awards are of course totally subjective, but we hope they at least give a flavor of where a book stands on specific feminist subjects.]
Friday, November 11, 2011
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