Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Book Review: Necessary Evil by Ian Tregellis

25. Necessary Evil by Ian Tregellis
Publisher: Tor Release Date: April 2013

Ian Tregellis is one of my favorite new authors. The Coldest War hooked me with the first line, "Wizards do not age gracefully." The final book in the triptych, Necessary Evil, is no slouch either for poignant turns of phrase. The protagonist, given his own voice for the first time, summarizes the book poetically; "Who was I but a scarred and sweaty madman railing against the woman who twirled history around her fingers like so much yarn?"

That woman, the "raven-haired demon," the "witch" with "wires in her braids," is Gretel, and she is not only the most fascinating character in Tregellis' triptych, but one of the most compelling villains in fiction. From the first time I learned of her incredible ability to read the future (more accurately, the lines of possible futures) and to shift it one way or another, I wanted to know more. In Necessary Evil, Tregellis satisfies that urge. He begins with a Prologue from Gretel's point of view, "She is five years old when the poor farmer sells her to the mad doctor." It's a story that was traced in the first book, Bitter Seeds, but Gretel's viewpoint makes it particularly creepy. With Gretel's power comes the obligatory discussion of free will, which Tregellis addresses with nuance, but also with flippance. When the old familiar British detective, Raybould Marsh, asks Gretel how her power doesn't negate the existence of free will, she nonchalantly replies, "I have free will." I almost regret though that this book makes clear that Gretel is a clinical psychopath. She's classically selfish and manipulative, with no regard even for the life of a brother who adores her. She was so more interesting when there was the possibility of more humanity in her. However, she does struggle in this book as she never has before and faces the only fear, the loss of her own control, that haunts a true psychopath.

At the end of The Coldest War, *SPOILER ALERT* the world is destroyed by the demonic Eidolons, but Gretel's machinations make it possible for Raybould Marsh to go back in time to the 1940s and create a new timeline where she and (graciously, she thinks) others don't end with the Eidolons. So in this book, instead of one boring British detective, there are two. I will confess, I was more fond of the jaded, scarred, older Marsh than his younger self and actually found him much more likable when given his own voice. The other books are written in third person limited from multiple points of view, but in this one the older Marsh speaks in first person and Gretel speaks in short first-person "interludes" as well. The novel is much more tightly focused on the two characters, which would be a helpful choice for a less skillful author. Tregellis, however, is capable of pulling off more and I missed the attention that the second book lavished on Will Beauclerk, the "guilty conscience" of Milkweed. Rather than a bumbling fool, Will comes off here as more of a genuinely moral compass, as he aids the time traveller Marsh in sabotaging the warlocks who won World War II (with the Eidolons' pernicious help) in "the original timeline."

The title of the book gets at the central question of the series, which is "How much evil is justified before good and evil become indistinguishable?" Tregellis leaves the answer fairly ambiguous. In the original timeline, Britain becomes as morally bankrupt as its enemies when it wins the war with debts paid in the blood of its own citizens. The second time around, Will and the older Marsh derail these "blood prices," at the cost of continuing a war that also takes its toll in blood. In order to ensure that the Eidolons will not destroy the world, all of the warlocks with knowledge of the Eidolons must be assassinated. In order to ensure before that that no one will resort to consorting with Eidolons, all the orphans installed with powers by the mad Doctor von Westarp must die. Not all of Gretel's siblings are naturally murderers or psychopaths like her, they are victims of the Doctor's experiments. But their otherworldly powers attract the interests of the military and Eidolons alike. (Sadly, Klaus, Gretel's biological brother and invisible man, and their frenemy, Reinhardt, the human salamander feature much less prominently in this book than the previous two.) Marsh tells himself that cooperating with Gretel is a "necessary evil," but Tregellis makes one wonder whether it isn't the nature of war, perhaps even the nature of humanity, to be evil despite itself. With two possible futures laid out in his books, it's difficult to tell, which one is more humane, or rather, less evil?

While I agree with other critics that the third volume in the Milkweed Triptych is "satisfying," I would say it didn't ultimately excite me as did The Coldest War. Tregellis has a fascinating cast of characters, a thrilling premise, and a virtuousic gift for language (though he's not immune to abusing his vocabulary, how many times does "chthonic" need to be used, really?), but something is missing in the execution of this last novel. The ending for the characters is too hum-drum for the whiplash pace and existential stakes of the series, and I find myself rooting for a future where Gretel's scheming days aren't finished.

Disclosure: Received for review from the publisher.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Top Ten Most Memorable Secondary Characters

Happy Top Ten Tuesday!

Top Ten Most Memorable Secondary Characters

1. Philippa Gordon from the Anne of Green Gables series, specifically Anne of the Island

"Phil" seems like an awesome friend. She's charming, talkative, friendly, and always getting herself into mischief. I'll never forget the time she chose which hat to wear by spinning around with a pin or the time she told Anne, "Nine times out of ten I can outshine you, but on the tenth night..."

2. Art3mis from Ready Player One

Art3mis is a kickass girl gamer who refuses to be sidelined. She fights her own battles and doesn't let romance distract her.

3. Ismene from Antigone

I can never get Ismene's fate out of my head. The poor girl gets hanged because her sister breaks the law. I always wonder what would have happened if Antigone had just listened to her and bidden her time.

4. Hermione Granger from Harry Potter

There's a fabulous cast to choose from in HP, and I'm not likely to ever forget Dumbledore,Fred and George, or Umbridge (UGH), to name a few. But of all these characters, Hermione has to be the most memorable. A witch who's the smartest in her class and, I would argue, a hero in her own right, Hermione is the one who brews the Polyjuice Potion, figures out the truth about the Chamber of Secrets and how to save Sirius Black, neutralizes Rita Skeeter, and ensures the secrecy of Dumbledore's Army, among other feats. She makes one of the biggest sacrifices of any of Harry's friends (erasing her parents' memories) and sticks with him to the bitter end, even when Ron hesitates. In some ways, Hermione is an even more important character than Harry, as an incredibly strong female character in a hugely influential series. Hermione is the one little girls (and boys) will look up to and say, "I wish I were more like her."

5. Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings trilogy

I love Sam. It never fails to amaze me when others don't recognize the critical role he plays in the trilogy. Without Sam, Frodo never would have made it to Mordor. And Sam remains the only person (Hobbit, Man, Dwarf, Elf, or Other) in Middle Earth to surrender the Ring of his own volition. Plus, Sam is just awesome. He loves Elves and everyone of all different races, longs for adventure, and yet is happy in the end to go home and tend his own garden.

6. Peeta Mellark from The Hunger Games trilogy

I might get a little swoony here, bear with me. Peeta is the opposite of the stereotypical male love interest. Yes, he's strong, but he's not hyper-masculine or especially skilled in fighting or survival. In fact, he needs to rely on the female protagonist, Katniss, for much of the trilogy. Instead, Peeta is a talented baker and an even more talented talker. It's Peeta that gets onlookers interested in Katniss and he continually saves her with his smooth talking. Plus, his love for her persists and overcomes psychological rather than stereotypical physical obstacles.

7. Mary Musgrove from Persuasion

I think I've discussed this before, but I love Mary Musgrove and her absurd sense of entitlement. She continually complains about how tired she is after her sister Anne does all of the work and insists on being seated before her mother-in-law "because [she's] a baronet's daughter." A valetudinarian on the level of Mr. Woodhouse (Emma) and obtuse on the level of Mr. Collins (Pride and Prejudice), Mary is a true gem.

8. Gretel from The Milkweed Triptych

Perhaps better on a list of most memorable villains, Gretel is unforgettable. The "raven-haired demon" is distinguished by the "wires in her braids" and utterly selfish machinations. With her clairvoyant powers, the mechanically-enhanced witch creates an entirely new timeline that sends the comparatively boring protagonist, Raybould Marsh, into the past. Stay tuned for my upcoming review of Necessary Evil!

9. Duncan Idaho from the Dune series

I didn't get what the big deal with Duncan Idaho was after the first book. I mean, he dies in the first half. But, oh when the later books come around! When the Duncan Idaho gholas (clones regrown from genetic material)take center stage and the characteristic Idaho ethics and grit play out in situations all over the Dune-verse-he's a hard man to forget.

10. Calvin O'Keefe from the Time Quartet and O'Keefe Family Books

Oh, Calvin O'Keefe, my first literary crush. The "genetic sport" is pretty fantastic right from A Wrinkle in Time and I always enjoy running into him in L'Engle's other books.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Top Ten Things That Make My Life as a Reader/Book Blogger Easier

Happy Top Ten Tuesday!

Top Five Things That Make My Life as a Reader Easier

1. Hold That Thought Bookmarkers

For marking important lines without marring my books!

2. Bookmooch

Getting rid of books I don't want/need, getting books I do want/need, and holding points in reserve for books I can get in the future when I theoretically have more space. Yay!

3. My bookcases and my organizational system

Where would I be without my bookcases, where I know how to find each book? (Now if only I could get the rest of them out of the boxes...).

4. Other Readers

I love getting recommendations for books from friends, family, acquaintances, people on the street...I'm not picky.

5. Artificial Light

Thank you Thomas Edison.

Top Five Things That Make My Life as a Book Blogger Easier

1. LibraryThing

I enjoy using the "Currently Reading" feature on my blog.

2. Amazon Associates

I don't ever make money with them, but I like using the images of books. And, if I get clicks, even better!

3. Other Book Bloggers

I get so many ideas and inspirations from other bloggers; Litlove, Boston Bibliophile, and Biblibio, just to name a few.

4. Tor

Whether sending me books to review, providing short stories on their entertaining website, or sending me their deliciously nerdy newsletter, Tor is certainly a boon for keeping up with new publications and publishing news.

5. Top Ten Tuesdays!

So that at least once a week, I have a topic in mind to write about!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Snow White: A More In-Depth Musical

23. Fairest by Gail Carson Levine

Ella Enchanted remains one of my favorite books from childhood. Unfortunately, Gail Carson Levine has never matched it in years since. Fairest comes the closest.

Aza has dull black hair, pasty skin, and lips a revolting blood-red. She's spent years dodging insults while working in her adopted family's inn. She grows up in Ayortha, the neighboring country to Ella's Kyrria, but unlike Ella, she at least has a loving family and a singular talent. Like most Ayorthans, Aza has a beautiful voice, but unlike anybody else, she can throw her voice and make it come from anywhere, a phenomenon she calls "illusing."

One thing leads to another, and Aza is introduced to the beautiful new queen of Ayortha, who hails from Kyrria and well, has need of Aza's particular talents. The well-intentionedly malevolent fairy Lucinda gets involved and some events get rather gritty for a fairy tale, though it follows the basic story in the end (we're not talking Gregory Maguire gritty, but this is no Disney either).

The book is full of ditties, ballads, and the like that Aza and the other Ayorthans sing. I found the same feature in another, more realistic children's fiction book that I read recently, Louis Sachar's Small Steps. I'm not sure that I care for it in either. Though music is central to both stories, the books really seem to require soundtracks, as the lyrics alone are not generally compelling enough (Fairest may have one or two exceptions). As opposed to Tolkien's songs, which I adore, these ones are not poetry first and so it is hard to experience pleasure when reading, even if reading aloud in your mind. Levine's attempt to turn this book into a musical is a fascinating concept, but ill-suited for the format. I could see it coming off much better in a movie, and she may have one in mind.

My favorite part of the book was the greater delving into the culture of the gnomes. Gnomes, which are introduced in Ella Enchanted, get explored much more thoroughly here and play a central role in helping Aza. I don't know that I care for their silly language though.

Overall, Levine's world-building skills and usage of (non-invented) language are superb and fun to read, but her plots are easy to see through and her characters lack a certain originality that a non-fairy-tale-character might exude. I'll keep reading her, but I don't think this will be a book for my class.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Queen's Lover: A Character Study

24. The Queen's Lover by Francince du Plessix Gray,
Narrated by Edoardo Ballerini and Tandy Cronyn

I don't often listen to audio books, but this may be the book that changed my mind.

The Queen's Lover had been on my TBR list since I read this review. Although after having read (listened to) the book, I disagree with the reviewer's conclusion. Don't read this book for its "wistful romance." Read it for its incredibly detailed, nuanced account of the French Revolution and Europe's response!

Edoardo Ballerini and Tandy Cronyn voice the roles of Count Axel von Fersen and his sister Sophie, respectively. The division of the two voices in the book may have suited it particularly for audio. I also noticed that du Plessix Gray tended to repeat facts and recount moments. The effect was realistic, as that of an older man reminiscing, but may have proved too dull in a book, whereas the reminders proved less tedious when listened to. Sort of like the "pink fingers of Dawn" (my FAVORITE line from The Odyssey. Not.) Ballerini and Cronyn's voices were convincing as the characters down to their Frenchified pronunciations (they were Swedish but spoke French in the home and Axel spent a large portion of his life in France). Also, and perhaps unrelated to the book, both have unusually soothing intonations.

The title and its implications, as so often these days, is deceptive. It would be better titled A Biography of Marie Antoinette by Count Axel von Fersen and his Sister. Not as catchy, but more accurate. The novel does extend after the queen meets her tragic death (hope I'm not ruining this for anyone!), but it's more of an epilogue that fills in the remainder of the narrators' lives.

Is this a love story? I would say no, though there are legitimate arguments to be made for it. I would say instead that it is a memoir of a woman and her moment in time, by her lover. A subtle distinction to be sure, but the time du Plessix Gray's fictional Count spends on describing the setting, the pitiable King Louis XVI, and historical events in France and Sweden belie the idea that this is a novel merely about his love affair with Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, his "Toinette," his "Josephine." Their love is a backdrop to a larger story of a fatal misunderstanding about the rights and place of monarchs.

The account of Marie Antoinette's youth is dazzling; the parties, the gambling, the clothes, the operas; all are exquisite. And yet, as delightful as the frivolity is, there is something more touching in the account of her family's fall from grace. The qualities that made the queen seem light and frothy are the same that enabled her to meet disgrace and death with kindness and politesse, exemplified in her famous last words after stepping on her executioner's foot; "Pardon me , Monsieur, I did not mean to do it."

du Plessix Gray breathes new life into tired events, making the ill-fated flight to Verenn tight with suspense, despite its known ending. The less-well-known history of Count von Fersen adds another layer of interest to the reader, as he relates his other lovers, his travels, and his relationship with Gustavus III of Sweden. That king seems to deserve a book of his own! I don't know for sure, but du Plessix Gray's work appears to be impeccably well-researched. She includes several letters between Marie Antoinette and Count Axel, and while most of these are fictional, they are based on truth. Letters between the two, written in invisible ink and secret codes, lie still un-deciphered in the French National Archives.*

I recommend The Queen's Lover heartily, but not as a romance nor even really as fiction. It shines as a study in character, as a biography dressed up in compelling voices from the past. And I'd be happy to read more of the same from du Plessix Gray, perhaps she'll tackle Gustavus III in more depth next!

* The Correspondence can be found (in French) on page 18 of this document.

40 AP - Correspondance de Marie-Antoinette. Correspondance de Fersen.
440 AP 1 Dossier 1. Marie Antoinette.
Lettres de la reine Marie-Antoinette à Axel Fersen. Octobre 1791-janvier 1792.
Lettres de Marie-Antoinette à Fersen, copies, la plupart transcrites en chiffre par Fersen
ou son secrétaire et annotées par lui. 28 juin 1791-24 juillet 1792.
Copies, par le baron Rudolf Klinckowström, de lettres de Marie-Antoinette à Fersen, dont
les originaux ont été détruits par lui-même. Septembre 1791-juillet 1792.
Copies de lettres de Marie-Antoinette à sa sœur la reine d’Espagne, à l’impératrice
Catherine II de Russie, au prince Kaunitz, ambassadeur d’Autriche, et lithographie de la
dernière lettre de Marie-Antoinette à Madame Elisabeth, sa belle-sœur. Janvier-février
1792, octobre 1793.
Lettres de Marie-Antoinette à sa mère, l’impératrice Marie-Thérèse, à ses frères Joseph II
et Léopold II, à la duchesse de Polignac, au duc de Choiseul et autres. 1770-1791.
Note autographe de Marie-Antoinette et transcription autographe d’une lettre du
maréchal Frederich Fersen à son fils, Axel Fersen. 1789.
Dossier 2. Fersen.
Lettres de Fersen à Marie-Antoinette. 1788-1792.
Memoranda de Fersen au roi et à la reine. Mars-novembre 1791.
Pièces relatives à Varennes. Juillet 1791.
Pièces après la mort de Louis XVI et Marie-Antoinette. 1794-1804.
440 AP 2 Fourniture d’ouvrages, de gravures, bibelots et autres articles à la Reine MarieAntoinette et paiement de pensions et autres gratifications: notes et mémoires
comptables de Campan, secrétaire de la souveraine et lettres et reçus des fournisseurs.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Here Comes the List

I have been reading this summer and some of these below, I've already reviewed or mentioned. There will be more to come on that front, but just to keep up with the official numbers:

20. Small Steps by Louis Sachar

21. Loser by Jerry Spinelli

22. Eggs by Jerry Spinelli

23. Fairest by Gail Carson Levine

24. The Queen's Lover by Francine du Plessix Gray

Also, Short Story #3

3. The Miniature Wife by Manuel Gonzalez

I didn't have time to read more than the titular story in the book I borrowed from the library.

Ay carumba, it was terrifying! Imagine a combination of Honey! I Shrunk the Kids, Gulliver's encounter with the Lilliputians, and the end of any run-of-the-mill horror flick, and you've got a pretty good idea of where this is headed. Gonzalez has a clean, sardonic prose that reminds me of soulless male narrators from Ishiguro to Rushdie. It's not my favorite style, but I imagine many modern-literary types would be intrigued.


19. Wanderlust by Elisabeth Eaves

Wanderlust has a particular significance to my life right now, as I just finished a job, picked up a suitcase, and began a trip around the country to visit friends and find employment. Although I finished the book a couple months ago, I often still turn to the pages I've marked (with convenient sticky markers like these, you didn't think I'd really deface a book, did you?)and marvel how much I can identify with the author. I'm also jealous; she's traveled in Egypt, Yemen, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and more. She's lived in Vancouver, in Paris, and in New York City.

But this book is more than "a love affair with five continents" or even a series of love affairs with a wide range of interesting and international men (though there's that too). Eaves reflects on her motivations, strengths, and failures, in prose that sounds like the ruminations of a particularly thoughtful and word-associative friend. The chapters are organized helpfully, on subjects ranging from Objectification to Love. While the book does have a coherent chronological order, one could also easily skip around to subjects of interest and be sure to read an entertaining story that adds to the contemplative whole.

I wonder if I would relate so much to this book were I not a female in my mid-20s fatally attracted to travel and change. I imagine others might find Eaves' motivations difficult to understand and certainly even I found some of her behavior reprehensible. Early in the book, she frequently and without further comment alludes to lovers that she took while ostensibly in a committed relationship. Later, she does provide a note of insight, if not justification, for her behavior. The variety that she craves in travel is reflective of the variety she craves in men, and furthermore the adventure-seeker in her loved the thrill of the double life, of waking up with her American lover and going to bed with her Swedish one. That's one aspect I don't personally relate to, but in her words, it seems more understandable.

The thrill of adventure and intertwined desires for travel and romantic love are themes throughout the book. Eaves writes, "Love is only a moment passed through, not somewhere you can go and live," and explains, "People who hate to make choices...are attracted to travel."

I highly recommend Wanderlust to those who love travel and travel memoirs, and also as a warning to those who love perennial travellers.