Saturday, January 2, 2016

Darkly beautiful modern and medieval gothic love story

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson

Genre: Gothic horror, love story

A man with a sordid lifestyle is severely burned in a car accident and gruesomely disfigured. As he recovers (miraculously) in the burn unit, he meets Marianne Engel, a woman who seems to know him who has wandered away from the psych ward and tells him stories about their shared past lives. Is she delusional, or are these stories real? How does she know the things she knows about him? Her tales become easier for him to believe as time goes by and he becomes increasingly attached to and dependent on her.
This book holds so many of the keys to my interests: darkly romantic, gothic, German medieval history, monasteries, magical realism, folk and fairy tales, disturbingly deep passions, stories within a story... the author took a long time to research and write this book, and I feel like it shows in the intricacies of the layers of story. Turnoffs: the main male character's kind of a know-it-all, full of bragging machismo about all of the terrible things he's lived through and done. I've run into that a few times in other books (The Bookman stories by Dunning, for instance). It rubs me the wrong way for a little while, and then I acclimate and the irritation fades as the quality storytelling takes over. And, the story obviously leans heavily on The Inferno for parallels (or maybe it's only obvious because I read The Inferno just prior to reading this). I would have loved it as much without the Inferno allusions – it's a darkly beautiful tale all on its own, and one I'll be remembering for a long time.

Coldest Girl: Holly Black's ode to the vampire genre

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

Genre: Gothic fiction, horror, paranormal

Tana lives in an alternate world where vampires are a dangerous reality. Their bite causes an infection that turns a person “Cold,” which means the person craves human blood with a violent, ugly passion. If the infected person actually ingests human blood, she becomes a vampire. If she can resist the siren call for 88 days (accomplished possibly through forced seclusion) she is cured of the bite. This doesn't happen very often. In Tana's world, the solution to the vampire problem is to send all vampires, infected humans, and vampire-loving humans to live in designated, enclosed 'coldtowns.' Coldtown is a little like Hotel California – you can check in, but you can never leave, with very few exceptions. The most powerful vampires are capitalizing on the desire of the average citizen to see what's going on inside the vampire cities by creating live video feeds and inviting the curious to view their grand parties through digital media. This is also how they recruit fresh blood (literally) by making their situation seem glamorous so that the naive, or the lost, or the bored are tempted to take up residence and provide a new source of sustenance.
Since vampires who haven't voluntarily submitted to being locked inside Coldtown, or been caught and forced to go, are a real danger to be guarded against at night, teen parties in Tana's world are called 'lock-ins' – the teenagers procure a keg whatever way it is that teens manage to do such things, and then lock themselves inside a house from dusk until dawn, with vampire-repelling seals around any entrances. But somehow, at the party that Tana is attending on a particular night with all of her high school friends, the event is breached by some really bad blood-sucking monsters and they proceed to massacre almost all the human teens in attendance. Tana happens to be sleeping off the liquor from a drinking game in the bathtub of the home, and is overlooked. When she wakes up, everyone is dead – except for her annoying-yet-charming ex-boyfriend, and another young man with some heavy secrets. Tana comes up with a plan to save herself and the young men from the vampires who are still in the house, and their adventure begins. Their plan to save themselves involves heading for the nearest Coldtown.
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is Holly Black's ode to all the vampire books she's read and loved, and it's a worthy effort. As I was reading, I detected the influence of other vampire tales – Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles, Lost Souls by Poppy Z. Brite (although Coldest Girl is a way more entertaining tale than that joyless thing!). Coldest Girl in Coldtown is dark, bloody, and graphic, but also has some light in it too. The characters are well-developed and the majestic but rundown prison city, Coldtown, run by the vampiric inmates, is epic. Black's world-building, the vampire mythology, and the characters she's created made me emotionally invested. As I neared the end of the book, I realized I didn't want it to end! That's pretty rare for me, and helped this book earn a favorite status. Tana, the main character, is a young woman who has the vulnerability of a normal teen which makes her indecisive at times and leads her to make some mistakes, but she also has the courage of a leader, with heart and a strong moral compass, and she's a delight to follow through this tale.
The novel does contain a few flashbacks to the late 19th and early 20th century, but the majority of the book takes place in an alternate modern day world.

A mystery wrapped in Sumerian mythology and trapped in time

Salvage and Demolition by Tim Powers

Genre: Science fiction / fantasy

A strong novella from Tim Powers involving Sumerian myth, time travel, and a love story. Richard Blanzac, a rare books dealer, receives a new lot of books that contains a manuscript by a little-known beat poet from the late 1950s. The manuscript has some mystical properties and Richard finds the answers to the mysteries surrounding the manuscript in his current time and in 1957. Very worth the few hours it takes to read. As with many of Powers' books, this book is beautifully rendered and will likely become a rare collector's item itself. 

Blue Sargent and the Raven Boys search for Blue's missing mother and their destinies

Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater

Genre: Young adult, fantasy

NOTE: This is Book 3 of The Raven Cycle. Beware spoilers for books 1 and 2 in this review.

Blue Sargent's home is populated with women with magical gifts. Blue is a magic amplifier—her touch (or her presence) makes other magic stronger. Blue and four young men from the local boys prep school – Gansey, Ronan, Adam, and Noah – have become a very tight-knit group, with the common goal of trying to find the underground location where an ancient king is buried. The king is in a magical slumber, waiting for someone to find him and wake him. Legend says those who wake the kind will receive a powerful favor from him.
In this third book of the Raven Cycle, Blue's mother, Maura, has left behind a mysterious note and disappeared. She's been gone for a month and Blue is worried she's in danger. She decides to go find her, and Blue's friends intend to help.
Blue Lily, Lily Blue introduced a few new characters who may have a bigger role to play in the fourth and final book of this series, which has not yet been released. The main characters find out more about themselves and how they relate to each other and the world around them, a world that includes the mundane city of Henrietta and also the sentient, magical forest of Cabeswater. The main characters are also finding and developing their skills. Adam has become Cabeswater's “eyes and ears” and now has a responsibility to keep the changing forest land in good repair. Ronan is developing his own magical power that involves the world of dreams. Others come to Henrietta – the Grey Man is visited by his “boss” who is not happy the Grey Man reneged on their deal. Gansey's professor from England comes to visit and check out the magic ley line running through Henrietta.
The second book in this series, The Dream Thieves, was in my favorites list last year, and I like this one even more. Stiefvater is a deft storyteller, and her characters are well-developed and natural. My daughter and I discussed Blue Lily, Lily Blue last night, and she told me she thinks Blue Sargent is the best, most realistic female character in all of the young adult novels she's read. I have to agree with her. The Raven Cycle has one more book to go, but based on what I've read so far, it's become my favorite YA series.
Oil spills, stunted shrimp, stolen weed, and buried treasure in Louisiana's Gulf Coast

The Marauders by Tom Cooper

Genre: Contemporary adventure

The author got a rave review from Stephen King, so he probably doesn't need my praise heaped on top, but he's getting it anyway. This is a really fantastic story. The tribulations of the Louisiana shrimpers during an industry tailspin after the BP oil spill in the Gulf, the theft of high quality weed from a couple of crazy brothers, one man's drug-addled search for a treasure no one else believes in, and many other shenanigans are taking place in Louisiana's Gulf Coast. There is a lot going on here, but the characters are so well wrought that it is not difficult to keep up. I love books, like this one, in which the setting is detailed and described with such passion it become a character in the story. I have a soft spot for well-written flawed characters and realistic, not-idealistic storylines and this book is full of them. Tom Cooper does for the Louisiana gulf coast what Jim Harrison does for northern Michigan. The setting is described in a way that makes you feel like you are there.  

Shakespearean actors travel through an apocalyptic future Michigan

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Genre: apocalyptic fiction

An apocalyptic event takes 99 percent of the population in a very short amount of time. Station Eleven takes place for the most part about 20 years after the population diminishing event. The violence in the new world has become less but there is still very little trust between those who survive. The stories in Station Eleven radiate out from Arthur, the Shakespearean actor whose death we read of first. Kirsten, who was a child actor in Arthur's last play, is now a member of a traveling troupe of actors and musicians called The Symphony. She and the rest of the troupe travel through northern Michigan, along the lake shore, stopping in the small towns made up of survivors along the way and entertaining them with plays and music. In one town they come across the Prophet, who has turned the town into a dangerous place for anyone who doesn't follow him. The troupe leaves as quickly as they can but are unable to avoid trouble. They become separated and as they attempt to find each other the story flashes back to a time before the apocalyptic event, and tells the story of Arthur, and the reader begins to see the connections between Arthur and the people who have survived.
The writing is beautiful and the characters are engaging. The plot is not too suspenseful and the story isn't plot driven but, that said, it doesn't affect the enjoyment of the novel, because the writing, the setting, and the characters are enough. It's also rather hopeful and uplifting for an apocalyptic novel.

Best Reads ~ 2015

I read 45 books in 2015, and most of those were at least medium enjoyable, but there were about a dozen that stood out from the rest, and one of those was a real surprise to me. It came late in the year and moved right to the front of the line. That book was The Martian by Andy Weir. Hard sci-fi is not something I usually read, but this story captured me. It incorporated adventure, suspense, humor, politics, and lots and lots of science. 

The list of my best reads of 2015 is below, and each book is reviewed in separate posts. Remember, these are not books that were published in 2015, simply books I read in 2015.

  • The Martian by Andy Weir
  • The Marauders by Tom Cooper
  • The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson
  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
  • The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck
  • The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black
  • Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater
  • Salvage and Demolition by Tim Powers
  • Celeste by I.N.J. Culbard
  • America's Boy by Wade Rouse
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie