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A Great Book Year

This is going to be the year. I may not blog every day, but I will when I can. I may not read or listen every day, but I will when I can. I’m going to forget about writing for anyone but myself. At this point, I’m sure I’m the only one reading this anyway. My reviews will be for me, myself, and I. What book will I start the year off with? I believe it shall be The Hobbit. A long favorite but one I’d like to revisit, especially considering the movie that just came out, which yes, I did indeed see. And I’ll be enjoying this classic in a different format, since I’ll be listening instead of reading this time around.

I’m also intrigued by 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. I’ve completely read 23 books on the list, and partially finished several more over the years, but there are many on there that I’d like to finally get to. I make no promises on how many total books will be part of this year’s reading list, but I will say perhaps every other book I read will be one from there.

There is really no other activity I enjoy more than reading. If I could do it all day, every day I’d be the happiest person on Earth, Twilight Zone twists aside. I’d never promise to read a book a day. I think when I try to make reading a chore, or a job, or any kind of obligation, I lose the fun and enjoyment. So this year will be the year of reading for fun and pleasure. I want challenging books, interesting books, sad books and funny books. Good books and hopefully not too many bad ones.

Basically, I want a great book year.

Happy New Year! After a year long hiatus, A Working Title will be back in full swing for 2012. To start things off right, I’ll point you to my guest post at Heroine Content on the U.S. cinematic adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Expect a review of the Millennium book trilogy here this weekend. I hope everyone enjoyed their holidays and I can’t wait to get back in the swing of things!

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Hardcover: 384 pages
Publisher: Scholastic Press September 14, 2008
ISBN: 0439023483
 
In a post-apocalyptic world, sixteen year old Katniss Everdeen is the sole provider for her family after the untimely death of her father some years before. With a mentally ill mother and a preadolescent sister, Katniss has three mouths to feed in District 12, where food is strictly rationed by the Peacekeepers, a force that answers directly to the controlling capitol, Panem. The capitol controls all twelve Districts by means of food rationing, force, and a diabolical practice called The Hunger Games. Each year, one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen are randomly selected via name drawing to represent their district in a gladiator-like challenge between the other eleven districts and each other. Only one “tribute”, as they’re called, can win the games and return home alive. Viewing of the games by every citizen is mandatory. As a means of control, the capitol has landed on a very effective one.
 
Katniss eventually becomes the female tribute for her District, opposite a boy named Peeta Marak who has a special connection to her past. Now Katniss must fight for her life, and the lives of her mother and sister, while struggling with the strange mix of emotions she has for Peeta. The other 22 tributes aren’t anything to ignore, either. Luckily, Katniss has plenty of experience with surviving, thanks to several years’ worth of hunting and gathering food for her family when they couldn’t afford it any other way.
 
The plot for The Hunger Games is simplistic. You know the outcome after the first couple of chapters. But it’s the journey towards that ending that kept me reading. Katniss is not your typical sixteen year old YA heroine. She’s tough, untrusting, and capable. Her mind is like a steel trap, snatching up every bit of information available to her and never letting go, even though it might seem useless at the time. The skills she gained and added to from her father and her friend Gale serve her extremely well and you never get the impression that she’s waiting to be rescued by Peeta or anyone else. Although from a backwater District that is the lowest on the hierarchical scale of this civilization, she quickly grasps at least a basic understanding of the political landscape when she is thrust into the limelight at the capitol, indicating a high level of intelligence that goes beyond knowing outdoor survival skills.
 
When it comes to Peeta, she’s both calculating and confused, but she doesn’t let her confusion distract her from her goal of winning and returning home covered in enough riches to feed her family for the rest of their lives. In order to gain sponsorship from wealthy patrons on the outside who can send aid to her inside the arena, her story must be compelling, and if that means lying, acting, or killing, she’ll do it. Peeta himself is a fairly shallow character; we learn little about him other than that he carries strong feelings for Katniss and has since they were very young. He seems to have no other goals or dreams in life, which is disappointing. Katniss deserves a potential partner of equal complexity. Her friend and hunting partner from District 12, Gale, is much more interesting but has very little face time in this first book. Hopefully we’ll see more of him in Catching Fire, the second installment in the trilogy.
 
An interesting part of the story is the technological disparity between the capitol, Panem, and District 12. In District 12, Katniss hunts with a bow and arrows that she doesn’t even know how to successfully duplicate, the mining that is the District’s contribution to the capitol is still done by humans who eventually sicken and die from coal dust poisoning, and people are regularly seen starving in the streets. But in Panem, they have hovercraft, food replicators, and highly advanced medical technology, as well as the ability to control at least select areas of weather and climate. One shot is enough to cure a gangrenous infection, and they have rejuvenating drugs that can even erase scars and blemishes from your skin. It’s obvious that yet another form of control by Panem is the withholding of technology from the outer Districts, but not much is explained about why. We learn little about the government and why they’re in power in The Hunger Games, except a brief mention of a rebellion several generations ago, but I have a feeling more will be forthcoming in the next two books.
 
This passes the Bechdel Test, although it’s a close thing. Katniss has little contact with women after the games begin, and her main mentors and friends are generally men. There are some characters of color, but not prominent ones, and there are no LGBT characters or even mention of the possibility of being gay. Diversity overall is severely lacking, although the fact that as many girls as boys are entered into the games without favoritism is a point in the book’s favor. The book is frank about the deaths of the children during the games, but the descriptions are not overly graphic.
 
Class is also very important in the story, with Katniss’s low class upbringing being an asset to her at times, as she is able to withstand hunger, pain, and adverse weather conditions better than the tributes from wealthier families and Districts, who’ve always had enough to eat and shelter over their heads. Could this be considered glamorizing the poor? I don’t think so, as Katniss tells the story of almost starving to death after her father died, and it’s obvious that she’d much rather be wealthy and not hunt, then risk her life and her family’s lives every day out in a forbidden forest. The tributes from wealthier areas have advantages too, in that they have reached their full growth due to enough food, they’ve had training with multiple weapons, and their sponsors on the outside are wealthier and better able to help within the games. It’s also stated that lower class Districts like 12 rarely last long in the games, due mainly to their underfed and under trained state.
 
The Hunger Games is a good story, not overly original but with a compelling main character that I’ll definitely read more of. I’d like to see the politics develop more, and where the relationships between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale will go from this point. Some more diversity would also be very much appreciated, but considering this is a series that has already been finished, I’ll have to take what’s already been included. If you’re looking for a good easy read with an interesting female lead, this is a good book for that.

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Daughter of Hounds by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Paperback: 448 pages
Publisher: Roc Trade; paperback / softback edition (January 2, 2007)
ISBN-13: 978-0451461254

 Daughter of Hounds has the dark gritty feel of the popular Urban Fantasy genre, but most scenes take place in small quiet towns, dank cemeteries, and desert wastes. Set mostly in the New England area, Daughter of Hounds is a unique and paradoxical work, with bloody scenes of mayhem and quotes from The Chronicles of Narnia. An orphan woman simply named Soldier and a young girl with stark yellow eyes named Emmie Silvey are somehow tied inextricably together in this story. Soldier is a hit-woman for the mysterious beings known collectively as the Hounds of Cain, ghouls, or ghuls. Canine-like beings from another world, their savage features (and behavior) deny them access to the world of humans; they make their dens below cemeteries and abandoned houses.

Over the centuries, they’ve resorted to stealing away the babies and young children of the people who live above ground, in order to raise them as “changelings” or Children of the Cuckoo, human servants to carry out their business in the sun. The Hounds teach them loyalty, fear, and obedience, as well as contempt for other humans and a taste for meat of any kind.

Any kind at all.

Soldier is one such Child of the Cuckoo. Stolen as a baby, she has no recollection of her life before the Hounds, and is solely and wholly dedicated to them, even as they repeatedly put her life in danger and she sinks into the despair of alcoholism. Soldier is not a traditionally likable character. Her attitude is off the charts and her mouth is in the gutter. She is a foul-mouthed, tough-as-nails kind of woman, who prefers to shoot first, shoot some more, and forget about asking the corpse any questions later. But she does get things done, although usually in the messiest way possible.

She’s rude and vicious to her changeling partners, Saben White and Odd Willie Lothrop, and has no compunctions about shooting down innocent bystanders if they happen to catch a glimpse of something they shouldn’t. Her mentor, the Bailiff, is the only one that can control her, but she’s not so sure the Bailiff is trustworthy anymore, if he ever was. She also has the ability to rewind time, a trick that has saved her life more than once. But there are strange gaps in her memory, and when a job goes horribly wrong, she starts to get the feeling someone is trying to kill her and hide a big secret at the same time.

The confusion Kiernan writes for her is palpable, and half the time it felt as though I had as little idea of what was going on as Soldier did. Every friend is an enemy, and people who should be her enemies turn around to lend a hand at her most desperate moments, causing even more distress. Being a woman neither spares nor impairs her during dangerous moments, and she comes across as strictly asexual, a change from the standard Urban Fantasy shtick. As she tries to complete her assignment, reign in her rogue partner Saben, and figure who and why someone is trying to kill her, not to mention what Emmie Silvey has to do with the Hounds and her, I couldn’t help but pull for Soldier, even though I may disagree some of her methods. She was raised by alien, man-eating ghouls, after all.

Emmie Silvey is eight years old, and the color of her eyes isn’t the only strange thing about her. She’s a precocious and intelligent child, with a very literal mind and a general uncanny ability to make everyone around her uncomfortable, either with her yellow eyes or her blunt questions and answers. Emmie’s wish is for her eyes to be green, her dad Deacon to be sober, and her stepmother Sadie to come live at home with them again. When she meets a strange woman who tells her to beware of horses, Emmie brushes off the encounter. Afterwards, a girl named Pearl starts visiting Emmie in her dreams, and soon reveals secrets about Emmie’s past that shatter every foundation of her life.

The Hounds of Cain want something from Emmie, and they’ll do anything to get it. She is forced to flee in search of Soldier, with the help of Pearl and a woman trapped in a dream of the desert. Emmie doesn’t enjoy the magic she encounters, and some of the scenes she’s forced to see would scar a war veteran, let alone a child. But she powers through, and even amidst all the chaos, manages to find answers to her million-and-one questions about who she is and why everyone is so interested in her.

An eight year old character can be hard to write, but Kiernan manages to cover any defaults with the pre-requisite “precocious” label. If Emmie sounds old beyond her years in some scenes, well, she’s a special kid. There are times, however, when it’s obvious that Kiernan can portray a typical child just fine, as Emmie often comes off as whiney and hardheaded, usually at the most inappropriate times in the story. When she and Soldier finally meet, it’s like oil and water, or perhaps gas and a match. Emmie is an interesting character, and one I’d like to see again in future books. She’s also a bibliophile, frequently quoting lines from children’s and young adult books.

Most of the main characters and several minor ones are women, so this book easily passes the Bechdel Test, with conversations and encounters touching on every aspect of the story. The violence is graphic in some places, but not over-used, and there are implied rape scenes, but nothing explicit, and not exclusive to the female characters. Pearl is referred to as brown, and there’s a brief conversation where she mentions that her mother was a Native American princess. Another character is black, but the color is from an incident in her past, not by birth. Otherwise, the cast seems fairly whitewashed. There are several derogatory references to LGBT characters in the book, but it’s par for the course as far as the language the characters use. A main character likes boys, but it’s more about possible pedophilia then being gay. Not the most diverse, but I have to give props to the bad-assery of all the women involved.

The main problem I had with the book was the ending, which I obviously won’t give away, but after sleeping on it, I see that Kiernan faithfully sticks to her characters’ natures and personalities, even when it would have been easy to write a happy ending. I don’t necessarily agree with it or have to like it, but it feels right for the story. I would definitely recommend this book, although I hope for more diversity and a smidgen less profanity in future releases. There are apparently two previous books in the series, Low Red Moon and Threshold, but reading them wasn’t necessary to understand Daughter of the Hounds, which was written to be a stand-alone.

If you’re looking for Dark Fantasy or Urban Fantasy without the romance, Daughter of Hounds delivers. Strong, dangerous female characters, smart, serious kids, and an ambiguous but thought-provoking ending that will make you wish for more books by Caitlin R. Kiernan.
 

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Check out Caitlin R. Kiernan’s website or follow her on Twitter @auntbeast

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A Local Habitation by Seanan McGuire
Mass Market Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: DAW; Original edition (March 2, 2010)
ISBN-13: 978-0756405960

Returning to the world created in her debut novel, Rosemary and Rue, Seanan McGuire absolutely delivers on the promises hinted at in her first publication. We come back to Toby Daye, the changeling woman and private investigator, as she’s working as a knight for Sylvester Torquill, Duke of Shadowed Hills. The Summerlands, the magical realm belonging to the fae, are divided up into different Counties, each one ruled by a Duke or Duchess, who then answer to the local court ruler, in this case a Queen. The Counties correspond to different areas in the mortal world; the County of Tamed Lightning, where the main story takes places, corresponds to the city of Fremont, California.

Sylvester has asked Toby to check on his niece January Torquill, the Duchess of Tamed Lightning. She has failed to check in for over three weeks, and Sylvester has become concerned that something sinister is happening in her County. Toby heads out with Quentin as her assistant, a young fae who was introduced in the previous book. The situation they find at ALH Computing, the headquarters of January and her team of technological fae, is much worse than anyone could have expected. What started as a dream of bridging new technology and the Realm of Faerie has turned dark, ugly, and deadly. It’s up to Toby, with the help of Quentin, Tybalt the King of Cats, and Connor the Selkie, to stop the deaths and get to the bottom of the mystery.

Toby is much more together in A Local Habitation. She’s sharp, quick, and logical, and goes about solving this series of magical crimes like any good P.I. Investigation is the key here, and Toby has got it down. Her character is much more centered, which makes sense in the storyline because she’s had more time to recover from her fourteen year imprisonment as a fish. She’s a woman who has finally figured out her purpose and she doesn’t hesitate to pursue the facts of a case, whether she’s meticulously searching through mounds of paperwork or using her fae abilities to try and read the blood of those who’ve been killed. Her decisions make sense, and the progression of events is well-thought out without being obvious. The mystery stays indistinct up until the very end, as a good mystery should.

January herself is a little flat. There’s so little time to get a feel for her character during the events of the book, I think more could have been done with her. More interaction between the two main women would have been nice to read. Gordan, one of the fae that works for January, has much more background explained than her boss, and is at times really funny with her biting, abrasive attitude. Quentin and Tybalt are much more developed, but poor Connor is still mostly a pretty face set to tempt Toby into indiscretion. The cast overall is a little non-diverse; most people are described as white, except for Yui Hyouden, a Japanese Kitsune and a minor character. I’m still holding out for more characters of color in future books.

The blending of technology and magic in the story is fascinating, as we meet April, January’s daughter, a dryad whose tree was destroyed several years ago by developers. She has been installed into a computer server, giving her abilities far different from the traditional wood nymph. Her personality takes a while to emerge, but once it does, watch out; this is a tech-fae with strong ideas about how things should work. The idea of using technology to aid Faerie is very unique, and it was handled well in the story, becoming a main driving force behind the mystery. The descriptions never became too technical, but enough was described that you felt the characters really knew what they were talking about.

A Local Habitation is a great sequel to Rosemary and Rue. The best part: it’s not necessary to read the first book before starting the second. It will help, but McGuire is adept at mentioning past events with just enough explanation that you get the gist, without them becoming long drawn out flashbacks or confusing the current storyline. Good characters, an interesting mystery, and an author who continues to improve her books make this a series worth reading. Keep an eye out for An Artificial Night, coming out in September 2010.

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Check out Seanan McGuire’s website or follow her on Twitter @SeananMcGuire

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**Awesome Update** The popular blog Racialicious: The Intersection of Race and Pop Culture, linked to my review of Alice in Wonderland. I’m supremely honored.

I was lucky enough to get the chance to review Tim Burton’s new movie, Alice in Wonderland, for one of my favorite sites, Heroine Content. It was a good movie, but with some flaws, and I’ll hope you’ll head over to HC to read my review and leave some comments.


The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee
Mass Market Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: Spectra
ISBN-10: 0553581279
ISBN-13: 978-0553581270

One of the best things about older science fiction is its ability to stand the test of time. Although The Silver Metal Lover was originally published in 1981, the story, characters, and events are so universal that it could have been written only yesterday. Many of today’s authors have lost this knack, the talent of writing universal stories that will be as applicable in twenty or forty years as they are this year.

Jane is a living girl afraid to live. Having grown up as a pet project of her mother’s, she has no will or thoughts or opinions of her own, merely what those around her believe she should have. Her mother has even chosen what Jane will look like, ordering her prescriptions and hair treatments that leave her plump and plain. Her friends are not really her friends, and the course of her life has been set since the moment her mother chose to be artificially inseminated.

All of this monotony changes in a moment when Jane sets her eyes upon Silver for the first time. S.I.L.V.E.R. stands for Silver Ionized Locomotive Verisimulated Electronic Robot. Electronic Metals has released a new and innovative line of robots, designed to appear nearly human and with extraordinary creative skills. Silver is one of these robots, let out into Jane’s city to act as a walking advertisement for the new models. He sings and plays music like that of a master musician, and Jane is instantly drawn to and repelled by him.

As they run into each other over the next few days, Jane begins to realize that Silver is like no man or robot she has ever encountered before. Eventually, she falls in love with him, and gives up everything she knows to buy him and be with him. When the government forces Electronic Metals to recall their too-human robots after pressure from a discontented public, Jane and Silver must run from the corporation determined to melt him down into scrap.

Jane herself is represented well as an inexperienced, sheltered rich girl. She doesn’t lord her wealth over others, but does take it for granted in the usual privileged way. Her most telling sacrifice and the true start of the story is when she sells her possessions in order to pay for Silver. Jane has never exerted her will or her own desires on anyone, always letting others take the lead, especially her mother. It takes a dramatic upheaval in her emotions for her to begin realizing how very controlled she is, and for her to start breaking that control. Silver is a catalyst for asserting her own independence.

The relationship between Jane and Silver could so easily have become clichéd and sickly sweet, but instead the problems that arise between them are serious and taken seriously. Their relationship isn’t perfect, and neither are either of them, regardless of the fact that Silver was supposedly constructed perfectly. As Jane begins to live her own life, she in turn brings Silver to life through her own human emotions and reactions. They grow and change through each other, in a way that two human partners often don’t learn how to do.

The side characters in the story are themselves interesting people, each with their own neuroses and flaws. Clovis, possibly Jane’s closest friend, is unable to love or be loved. He frequently uses cheap parlor tricks to get his live-in lovers to vacate, including holding phony séances in which a spirit tells them to leave. He is also very casually and matter-of-factly gay. Egyptia is a self-absorbed drama queen, often putting herself at the center of attention in as loud a way as possible. Jane’s mother, Demeta, is a distant and calculating figure, manipulating Jane and her life in whatever manner she deems best. Each character we meet plays a vital part in the story, no matter how minor it may seem at the time.

I wouldn’t call this story realistic, because in reality I think life would have been much harder for them once they moved into a place of their own and tried supporting themselves. But again, it’s science fiction, and it’s difficult to imagine what the reality of this situation would be like. Tanith Lee has a very elegant touch with descriptive words and personal narratives. You never get tired of hearing Jane’s inner thoughts, and it’s fascinating to watch Jane grow from a mousy child into an independent woman. There are some corny parts in The Silver Metal Lover, but it is after all a love story, and they are kept to a minimum.

This book not only brings up questions of self awareness and personal freedom. Hinted at is the implication that even as humanity strives for perfection within themselves and their machines, a truly perfect copy of a human would never be accepted. The idea that a machine could be a better human than a real human is a concept that the general public could never tolerate. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone looking for thought provoking science fiction on top of a good love story. I know I’ll be thinking about The Silver Metal Lover for days.

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