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Recent Reading: An unexpected pleasure

So, starting Greg Stolze’s new novel SINNER when I decided to take an hour to relax before bedtime?

Yeah, not a good idea. In fact, pretty serious mistake.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t put this book down. But putting it down involved considerably more willpower than I expected, and I certainly didn’t make any attempt to go on with my own WIP until I reached the end. Luckily it was a fast read!

You may remember that I backed this novel on Kickstarter, just a few days ago? I didn’t kick in as much as I originally intended to, because by the time I looked at it – and I’m grateful to Ken Hite’s twitter comment for the pointer – the project had already funded, so my contribution was just a casual gesture of support for a book that looked like it might be pretty good. And, you know what? It may not be perfect, but it’s way better than just pretty good. Here’s how it starts:

I’d just pushed my way through the revolving door when I heard a snicker. My first instinct was to give someone a smack for the disrespect, but seeing as I was in the St. Louis city central police station, I decided to forbear. It wouldn’t exactly set the right tone.

“Hello,” I announced. “I’d like to turn myself in.”

“End of the line,” the functionary behind the glassed-in desk said. There was a short queue of people standing before her. I went to gently nudge aside the sweating man at the front and he said, “Back off, fruitbat!”

“I don’t think you understand.” I tried very hard to be patient, and to display my patience. “I’m Sinner. The supervillain? Perhaps you’ve heard of me?”

“All I see,” he snorted, “Is a pansy in a purple suit acting the nutjob and tryin’a cut in line.”

“Everyone will be seen to in order,” the woman said, not looking up from her computer monitor, raising her voice authoritatively but with a tired note. She was sick of this, I’m sure, and who can blame her? No doubt she saw more than her share of cranks, weirdos and impostors.

“I can do this,” I explained and, running a finger through the inch-thick bulletproof plastic, swept a circular hole in it as easily as you’d pop a soap bubble. The hidden layers of plastic fluoresced purple, as matter always does when I disintegrate it.

The policewoman screamed. The sweat-hog dropped his forms on the floor and fled, shoving a woman aside on his way to the revolving door. Other people started shrieking and fleeing too, pressing back against the walls, lunging into the bathrooms, cramming themselves in the chambers of the rotating exit, which clearly wasn’t spinning anywhere near fast enough for them. Then there was a brief pause before patrolmen bubbled out of the back—not rushing, but emerging in a resolute, steady stream, guns drawn and aimed.

“You won’t need those,” I said. “I’ve come to surrender.”

“Yeah right,” one announced. “Keep your hands where I can see them!”

“They are where you can see them.”

“And keep ‘em there!” he barked, as if he’d adroitly defeated me in a battle of wits.

Okay, that’s a promising start, right?

Actually that’s not the REAL beginning, though. The actual first bit is a set of partial newspaper clippings: A Man Can Fly (April 1955, special edition of the Times). First Man on Mars is Russian (September 1984). Javalin Halts Nuke Disaster (April 1986, Tribune) – “Warned by the radiological senses of the All-Seeing I, American superheroine Javalin was able to mitigate a meltdown at the Russian nuclear plant in a city called Chernobyl . . .”

All through this book, Stolze weaves in newspaper clippings, some about superheroes and some about incidents having to do with space travel. His world, it turns out, is very like ours, except that superpowered people started showing up in the fifties and also that our ability to travel through the solar system has been a reality for roughly that long. These two factors eventually tie the book’s plot together into a coherent whole — we find out why superpowers started showing up, for example — but the story is mainly tightly focused on Hector Lear (‘Sinner’), who used to be a supervillain and has now decided to just quit with the villain thing and turn himself in. We find what led to this decision over the course of the story, of course.

Let me just say here that this kind of novel, which makes extensive use of asides and flashbacks to propel the present-moment first-person story, is pretty darn hard to pull off. Stolze does an excellent job: every newspaper article, every flashback and every digression is beautifully integrated into the overall story. Nothing about the way Sinner holds back important information feels like Stolze is cheating, largely because we can feel right away how utterly unwilling Sinner is to think about certain events. How did Javalin die? Is she really dead? How about Black Marvel? [And wow, what a villain he is, btw!] What the heck was Sinner’s role in whatever happened? And did he really turn himself in, really for real, or does he have some kind of long-term plan and this is just a tactic? We have many unanswered questions that Sinner could answer, but doesn’t – at least not till it’s appropriate in the story. As I said, this works quite well, which is a tribute to Stolze’s chops as a writer.

Sinner is a great protagonist, with a fluent first-person-smartass voice. But what’s even better is that Stolze seems to give just about every character, no matter how minor, the same careful attention. Supervillains, superheroes, other prisoners, prison guards, Hector’s sister, everyone. This is particularly impressive because lots of these characters get very little time on screen, but we get a solid sense of them just the same. I love the superhero Pilgrim, but then I love the public defender who defends Sinner just as much. There’s even a very (very) faint thread of romance through the story, one that actually adds a nice grace note to the end.

So is this book perfect? No. Stolze has a stylistic feel for certain commas that differs from my preferences – see the third-from-the-bottom line of the excerpt above; to me that should be “Yeah, right.” But that’s probably a recognized alternate comma usage, I guess, and even though it bugs me, it bugs me MUCH LESS than if he’d spelled “all right” as one word, which thankfully he did not. (The book I’m reading now does, and it drives me NUTS).

Much more importantly, to me the ending seems more than a bit rushed and maybe a little contrived. I’ll try to put this clearly without giving anything away: the way Sinner winds up in position to be contacted and picked up by the Egghead et al near the end? For some reason, Stolze didn’t show Sinner making the important decisions that led him into this position. Instead, we only saw glimpses of that part after the fact and from a third-person perspective. Since his decisions during those offstage events seem to contradict years’ worth of earlier decisions we actually did see, I couldn’t really believe in those events.

Even more important, the continuing lack of a first-person view of the very important events right at the end? Not only does that continue to make the action seem rushed, but the shift from a detailed first-person narrative to mere glimpses from a third-person perspective also forces the reader away from the protagonist. Imposing this distance from both the protagonist and the action seems an odd choice for Stolze to make. I would definitely have preferred that Stolze add another fifty pages in order to draw out some of these important scenes in more detail.

I will say, though, that the problem of distance was partly fixed by the brief epilogue, which once more brings the reader closer to the protagonist.

Okay, having said that, I do expect that I’ll probably buy a print edition of this book, partly because I turned out to be unable to get this book to load properly on my Kindle (I read it via Calibre on my laptop, which was okay, but definitely not as nice as reading something on my Kindle), but mostly because if I get the print copy, I’ll be able to loan this book around, which I want to do. I will also be looking for other work by Stolze, because SINNER was more than good enough for me to want to try something else of his. MASK OF THE OTHER sounds like it might be fun, though Cthulhu is not usually my thing.

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If you’re a beauty-and-the-beast fan —

There’s a brand-new title out this month that sounds really promising.

As it happens, I’m a real sucker for this particular fairy tale. Robin McKinley’s BEAUTY is probably the ultimate comfort read for me, and in fact I even like ROSE DAUGHTER, though not nearly as much as the original BEAUTY.

And the Disney version with the dancing plates? Yep, I like that, too.

And Dunkle’s THE HOLLOW KINGDOM? Even though I really had some issues with a society that depends on, let’s not kid ourselves, kidnapping and rape for its survival — even though this is a thing in this book — I still enjoyed the actual story quite a bit.

And Merrie Haskell’s THE PRINCESS CURSE, with its combination of the Twelve Dancing Princesses with the story of Beauty and the Beast? Yep, loved it. (As it happens, those may be two of my all-time favorite fairy tales.)

So this new novel by Stacey Jay definitely caught my eye.

In the domed city of Yuan, the blind Princess Isra, a Smooth Skin, is raised to be a human sacrifice whose death will ensure her city’s vitality. In the desert outside Yuan, Gem, a mutant beast, fights to save his people, the Monstrous, from starvation. Neither dreams that together, they could return balance to both their worlds.

Isra wants to help the city’s Banished people, second-class citizens despised for possessing Monstrous traits. But after she enlists the aid of her prisoner, Gem, who has been captured while trying to steal Yuan’s enchanted roses, she begins to care for him, and to question everything she has been brought up to believe.

As secrets are revealed and Isra’s sight, which vanished during her childhood, returned, Isra will have to choose between duty to her people and the beast she has come to love.

Doesn’t that sound promising? I know, I know, that sounds like every kind of cliche as far as the structure of the society goes. But even so, what a neat twist on the classic fairy tale!

Goodreads’ initial reviews look good. I think I’m adding this one to my wishlist.

And I think I’m likely to get this one in physical form. Because that cover? Nice.

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Elderflower experiments

So, by the way, if you get up extra early in the morning, it turns out that you have time to go out and pick elderflowers (from the bushes you planted several years ago but never remember until it’s too late). Then you can come in and make elderflower fritters, using the flowers plus the elderflower cordial you made earlier in the week.


The elderflower cordial is easy: you bring four cups of water and four cups of sugar to a boil, set it off the heat, and let it cool while you collect 25 or 30 heads of flowers, strip the flowers off the stems, and delicately remove the few insects that came with the flowers. (I suggest you strip the flowers off the stems outside, since flowers do scatter everywhere.) Then you pour the sugar syrup over the flowers, add the zest and juice of two lemons and a tsp of citric acid, cover, and let steep for two or three days.

This produced a nice honey-floral syrup.

To make the fritters, I used this recipe, rather than just dipping the flowers into a batter and frying them. 100% of spaniels surveyed agreed that these fritters were tasty plain, but I drizzled mine generously with the cordial.

I think there might be time before the flowers are spent to make the more standard flower fritters, more like this, but on the other hand I could just make regular pancakes and use the rest of the cordial up that way.

The dogs really do get underfoot in the kitchen, incidentally. Adora — the red dog in this picture — has a definite sweet tooth and is usually at some risk of getting stepped on, though sometimes she moves back to where she can watch me more safely yet not miss any cookie-distribution moments.

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Bujold and the numinous

Liz Bourke posts here , about the religious ‘feel’ of the Chalion books, and how the impact of the books depends on the reader’s perception of religion.

Numinous is a word sometimes misused. But the Chalion books have betimes been characterised as speculative theology, and it’s not a poor description in the least.

But that sense of divine presence only works if you have a background with divine possibility.

And so forth.

Plus, then Liz meanders on to discussing THE DAUGHTER STAR by Bigelow, which I haven’t read but is, I think, on my Kindle. Or maybe my wishlist. Somewhere on my radar, anyway.

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Martha Wells —

Posts about how she sold her first book.

Also, she mentions Steven Gould’s JUMPER, a book I really enjoyed. Wasn’t there a not very great movie based on it? That then led him to write sequels that weren’t really contiguous with the first book? (I haven’t read them — if anybody has, can you comment on whether they’re worth reading?)

Anyway, I sympathize with this part: My hearing and my sinuses never quite recovered, but it gave me the ability to write under just about any conditions and ignore distractions. Makes me appreciate that the only thing usually distracting me is a zillion dogs suddenly wanting to go out / come in / have supper / have a biscuit / have their bellies rubbed / etc.

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If you like book review vlogs —

Here’s one from Heidi at Bunbury in the Stacks. It makes me happy because, hey, there’s THE FLOATING ISLANDS, as one of her top picks for June. Yay!

Of all the books mentioned in this vlog? I’ve only read two, and one was assigned in school (does that count?). The one I most want to read? THE DREAM THIEVES, by Maggie Steifvater, which is the sequel to THE RAVEN BOYS. For us mere mortals, it isn’t out until September. Those book bloggers: they cheat! I am dying to know about the raven.

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Kickstarter —

BTW, I just backed SINNER, a novel about a supervillian who hangs up his cape and turns himself in, by Greg Stolze.

It sounds like fun, especially considering the kickstarter proposal itself is fun to read! The proposal has two or three days to run, but it’s a sure thing — it just made its minimum overnight. Good for Stolze! I definitely like to see novel proposals succeed on kickstarter.

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Top Ten for 2013 (So Far)

Can you believe the year is half over? Amazing. I think that’s hard to believe partly because we had such a long-drawn-out spring, though I must admit it definitely feels like full summer now as we move toward July.

Anyway! It was amazingly easy to pick this list; what was hard was sorting them out in order. The whole middle of the list, yeah, those titles are all jammed tight together.

I see, btw, that I have so far read an average of nine books per month, with surprisingly little variation (from eight to ten). I had no idea I was being so consistent this year. I’ve read fifty-one books total so far this year, so I doubt I’ll wind up reading as many this year as I did last year. (Last year I read 147 books! Not much chance of that this year, given that I want to finish writing the BLACK DOG sequel (which at the moment I’m calling PURE MAGIC, btw) and also finish another book that I have partly done at the moment.)

Anyway, two of the books I read in January leap right out: NK Jemisin’s THE KILLING MOON / THE SHADOWED SUN duology. For me, though both of these belong on a best-of-2013 list, the second book of the duology was actually the one I preferred. Just curious: anybody else put them in that order?

In February, I read eight books, of which no fewer than three are jostling for room on the best-of list: AND ALL THE STARS by Andrea Höst, THE RAVEN BOYS by Maggie Stiefvater, and A NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS by Marie Brennen.

Moving right along, in March I got a Kindle and immediately my virtual TBR shelves exploded, but it’s not like I suddenly had a lot of virtual days to read ‘em in, so I still wound up reading only nine books. Several of those were disappointing, but The Fall of the Ile-Rien trilogy by Martha Wells was a standout.

April was unusual because I liked every single book I read; in fact, I liked them all quite a lot. I had Cherryh’s latest Foreigner book in there, and a murder mystery by Maron (I immediately picked up three others of that series), and this was the month I discovered The Shadow Unit series by Emma Bull et al. Even in such a solid month, though, it’s easy to distinguish two favorites: THE WHEEL OF THE INFINITE by Martha Wells and THE CHOCOLATE THIEF by Laura Florand. Those two present quite a contrast, in style and setting and genre and really basically everything, but they’re both so good.

May was my Andrea Höst month: the standouts for that month were definitely her Medair duology and her Touchstone Trilogy.

And June? I doubt I’ll read another book this month, so it’s safe to pick. Of the five books I’ve read this month, I have to say, 2312 by KSR really is pretty amazing. But my actual favorite for the month is definitely Florand’s THE CHOCOLATE KISS.

If you count each book separately, that’s seventeen books jostling for position on my top-ten list (and the year only half over!). Of course, if you count series as one each, then, hey, this is in fact a list of ten. Some series are a lot more firmly linked into one story than others, though, with the Medair duology and the Touchstone trilogy both comprising just one story each. It seems right to treat this as a top-ten list of stories, rather than titles. So here goes (drumroll, please):

Rachel’s Top Ten Stories from the First Half of 2013, in descending order:

1. The Touchstone Trilogy by Andrea Höst. I just loved this story and re-read most of it immediately. This is because of the diary format; when Cassandra starts to read her diary out loud to her lover, I just had to go back and start the series over and think about what it would be like to have the person you love read this to you.

2. The Shadowed Sun by NK Jemisin.

3. The Fall of the Ile-Rien trilogy by Martha Wells.

4. The Wheel of the Infinite by Martha Wells. I actually had a hard time sorting this one out with the Ile-Rien trilogy, but I finally decided that whereas I loved the beginning of Wheel more, I loved the ending of the Ile-Rien story better, so set the Ile-Rien trilogy higher. Endings are hard! And very important.

5. The Medair duology by Andrea Höst. I know I talked about the Touchstone trilogy more, but I don’t want to sell this great duology short. The more I think about endings and beginnings and flow and characterization and everything, the better this story gets. If I particularly loved to have romance as the central subplot, this one would move up the list.

6. The Killing Moon by NK Jemisin.

7. And All the Stars by Andrea Höst.

8. The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater.

9. The Chocolate Kiss by Laura Florand. You know, the more I think about it, the more impressed I am by the tightness of the plotting as well as by the sheer quality of the writing. The story does open out a little toward the end, with time-is-passing paragraphs to move things along. Nevertheless, there are all these important tidbits of foreshadowing, almost all of which I missed at the time — very impressive. And I fell so hard for Magalie, such a wonderful protagonist; I think I was almost as traumatized when she got locked out of her apartment as she was. (You’ll have to read the story to find out why that was so traumatic, but it was an extremely effective scene, believe me.)

10. The Chocolate Thief by Laura Florand. Anybody who loves Sarah Addison Allen should try Florand, btw, and of course vice versa. There are some differences; Florand tends to focus more on the erotic awareness of each protagonist for the other, for example. But they are both just such amazing writers.

I know, I might as well have made this a top-five-authors list, right? What can I say? I didn’t think of that until I’d already done it this way.

What about you? Anybody got a handful of titles that (or authors who) are clear standouts for the year?

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Baen’s List of Military SF: Decidedly incomplete

So, over at Worlds Without End, there’s this: Baen’s List of Recommended Military SF.

“Baen polled its readers, on Facebook and on Baen’s Bar, for a list of recommended Military SF. The criteria was simply works of SF (fantasy & science fiction both) that have as their main theme military concerns….”

Some of the entries are, shall we say, a stretch. DOWNBELOW STATION does not strike me as military SF; not at all. Mallory is certainly in a military organization, but the merchanter family of Konstantins? Not part of any military, and way more important as protagonists. And so on and so forth: lots of protagonists and I believe only Mallory would push this novel into the realm of military SF, and she can’t do it by herself.

You know, the mere existence of a military threat? Not sufficient to make a novel military SF. (Isn’t that obvious? Maybe it’s just me.)

Plus, there’s a conflation of space opera (Bujold’s Vorkosigan books) with military SF, which is unfortunate. I think the two forms blend together at the margins, but I don’t think they’re the same.

Plus, is it really necessary to list each of David Drake’s titles separately? That leads to a lot of clutter. Could we list by series instead?

But most importantly . . . where is Tanya Huff’s Valor series? Because that’s clearly military SF plus substantially better than most of the books on this list (that I’ve read, which is a minority). I think Baen’s readers who contributed to this poll are definitely missing out!

I don’t see a way to leave a comment at the WWE post, so hey, this is my comment on that post.

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Longing for macarons, making do with chocolate

I’m just at the point in THE CHOCOLATE KISS when Philippe makes a rose-and-raspberry macaron for Magalie for Valentine’s Day.

I’m dying, here.

I can just see she is going to stomp on his heart (again), because the book is only half over. Poor Philippe!

You know, it’s remarkable how appealingly vulnerable Florand makes her male leads, considering how completely arrogant they are. At least, though Philippe Lyonnais and Sylvain Marquis are actually quite different from each other, that’s one quality they definitely share.

And Florand has made Cade Corey and Magalie Chaudron distinctly different characters, too, even though both are vulnerable and lovable. Vulnerability is not a trait I necessarily find all that attractive in a protagonist, because so often the author layers it on with a heavy hand, but Florand does such a beautiful job with characterization and backstory. I just love Magalie, who after her unsettled upbringing doesn’t quite feel she’ll ever fit in anywhere, and defends herself against the world with her understated makeup and her perfect hair and her five-inch heels. I wish I could go shopping with her. In Paris, you know. Florand has totally convinced me that Magalie has great taste in clothes. I’d definitely let her advise me on what to buy.

So, anyway, do you realize quality macarons are $4 each via Amazon? That means a lovely little gift box of eight is pretty pricy. I guess I’ll stick with chocolate for now. It’s a heavy cross to bear, I’ll tell you. (There is plenty of chocolate in the book, too, btw).

As a public service to you all, let me just mention that Lindt dark chocolate with black currants is surprisingly excellent. I would never have thought of pairing chocolate and black currants, but I think I like it even better than Lindt dark chocolate with orange. I like the Lindt with chili, too, but that’s not at all surprising, because I already knew I liked that combination.

Green and Black organic dark has a faint cinnamon or floral echo behind the chocolate. I like it, but not as much as the Lindt. (UPDATE: I now see that it is Mayan Gold; the cinnamon notes are no longer a surprise.) I was dying to try the Green and Black with crystallized ginger, which was recommended by a commenter, but alas, it is very expensive online and not available locally.

I actually find I prefer Dove dark to Ghirardelli 72%. I didn’t expect that, but the Dove has a considerably smoother mouthfeel, and next to the lighter, smoother Dove, the Ghirardelli seems a bit harsh.

The Brit chocolates I brought home from Costa Rica are little beads of dark chocolate with guava-paste centers. I like them a lot, but there’s no question that the Brit chocolate isn’t as good as Lindt or Dove. The mouthfeel isn’t as smooth and the taste is harsher. The guava paste is a great combo with the chocolate, though. They’re better nibbled separately from the other types of chocolate, so they can be enjoyed without forcing a comparison.

I’m really taking my time with this book, I just nibble my way through a couple of chapters at a time along with three oz or so of chocolate. It makes for a lovely middle-of-the-afternoon break, let me tell you. Mmm.

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