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"The Windup Girl" made quite a splash when it came out. It won the Nebula and the Hugo and it was the author's debut novel (although he'd written four previous novels that he couldn't get published).
I bought a copy when it came out in paperback but I struggled so much with all the strange Thai names and words in the first chapter that I put it to one side and somehow it never came back to the top of the reading pile.
When I saw that there was an Audible Frontiers version, read by Jonathan Davis, who did such a good job reading "Theiftaker", I decided to give it another try.
"The Windup Girl" is set in a far future Bangkok and is written from the point of view of five different characters: three men an American from one of the calorie companies that controls the world's food supply, a Malay Chinese refugee who has lost everything, a Thai Captain in the Environment Ministry who passionately defends his country; and two women, a Thai subordinate to the Captain who has her own agenda and a New Person, the Windup Girl of the title, who was manufactured in Japan.,
Jonathan Davis gives each of them a distinctive voice, in the right accent. He performs rather than simply narrating. He clearly studied the text carefully. Every inflection supports the author's meaning. He pronounces the many foreign words and formal titles with an easy familiarity that made me feel part of the landscape. The production standards are high. The music is appropriate. This is a movie for the ear.
The book turned out to be everything I had hoped for. Bacigalupi (the name is Italian and means "kiss of the wolf. I know this because John Irving used it for his main writer character in "One Night At Twisted River". I wonder if he's ever read "The Windup Girl?) has created a plausible future in an exotic (to me) setting. It is a hard world and the main characters all face the same challenge: deciding what they are prepared to do to survive and having to live with the person they become with each survival decision they make.
The book has a good plot and strong local colour but at its heart it is character driven.The characters do not divide easily into good or bad. They are products of their pasts who, under the extreme pressure of their current circumstances, have to decide what they really value and what they are prepared to sacrifice to get it. Some of the characters are hard to like but all of them feel real and all of them, even the most selfish and fear-driven, won my sympathy.
Bacigalupi is willing to be truly brutal when the story demands it. The sex show that the Windup Girl is forced to perform is graphic and detailed and completely devoid of any trace of eroticism. In a land where keeping face is everything, Bacigalupi show us that this performance is about humiliation, shame and power. One of the characters is forced to make a public apology. Coming from the West this didn't strike me as a big deal. Bacifalupi put me far enough inside the Thai character's head that I was shocked at the vicious, merciless annihilation of the man's pride and identity.
It's a long book, more than nineteen hours of listening, but it seemed to fly by and I regretted reaching the end simply because I had enjoyed it so much.
Read this book if you're in the mood for something thought provoking, difficult but fundamentally human.
When I read "Spiders's Bite", the first book in this series. last September I thought the series showed promise because, Gin Blanco, the Elemental Assassin of the title, was refreshingly amoral and because Lauren Fortgang's narration brought the book alive.
"Web of Lies" has some good things going for it - if it hadn't I would never have made it to the end of the book because it also has a lot of things wrong with it.
There is a basis for a really good series here. The characters continue to develop. We learn more about them through well-handled back-story and by seeing how they behave under physical and moral pressure. Estep makes sure that Gina Blanco is not one-dimensional, giving us just enough reasons to care about her to want her to win and to explain the loyalty others show her, while making her just broken enough to do the violent things that are asked of her.
The cast of characters continues from the previous novel and new ones are introduced that you know you will enjoy learning more about. The goody-two-shoes Detective male interest of the first novel gets what he deserves.
There is clearly a book-spanning story arc and it's intriguing enough for me to want to see how it plays out.
The plot for the novel, a basic "Magnificent Seven" set up, is well handled and has enough sub-plots to keep me interested and it's set in spectacular places that are well described.
The dialogue works well. The actions scenes and the violence are convincing and engaging without being pornographic and the magic has enough constraints and consistency to make it convincing.
So what could possibly go wrong?
Estep's editor seems to have been asleep at the wheel. There are number of times when passages giving back story are repeated, sometimes word for word, a few chapters apart. It was like listening again and again to a "Previously, on Elemental Assassin" segment designed for readers who either haven't been paying attention or suffer from short-term memory loss. I can tell you without any reference to the text that Gin was with Fletcher for seventeen years, that's she's been an assassin for seventeen years, that she has a rune on her hand: "a small circle with eight radiating lines, a spider rune, the symbol for patience." because they are repeated so often they are almost a chorus.
It's natural for authors to repeat themselves from one scene to another, including use the same words. Its the editors job to find and eliminate these repetitions.
A good editor would also have prevented Estep from over-using phrases like "I looked at him with my grey eyes" After the third time I was wondering if Gin either had eyes of another colour that she could have used instead or was able to use something other than her eyes to look at people.
A good editor would have corrected the grammar, at least to the point of getting endings and tenses right.
A good editor would have prevented Gin Blanco from going "Mmmmm" EVERY time she sees Detective Doright.
I was left wondering if this book had an editor at all.
My experience of the book was then worsened by the audiobook production standards.
I know Lauren Fortgang can be a good narrator. I enjoyed her reading "Shadow and Bone" and she made "Spider's Bite" come alive but this time I felt that I was listening to a sight-reading in a rehearsal rather than the finished product: stresses where in the wrong places, she ran out of breath and there were inappropriate, pointless pauses. This all adds up to poor production in my view.
Then there's the sex scene. It's not really a sex scene. It's a "Romance Writer's of America", guaranteed -not-to-offend, scene with all the erotic impact of a cold shower. Lauren Fortgang's decision to read this passage slowly, in what I assume was an effort to inject some passion into the dull prose, had me reaching for the "play at twice normal speed" button on my iPod.
I'm going to stick with the series to find out what happens. I just Jennifer Estep got an editor who can help her make her books as good as I think they could be and a producer who gives the narrator an opportunity to do more than phone in their performance.
There are lots of good things to say about this book: the world is imagined in great detail and well described, it is well plotted, the main character is likeable, brave and compassionate, and the magic system is novel and well thought through. There are storms and babies abandoned on the Abbey steps, and swords and horses, an evil Sheriff, brave young knights, a corrupt King, a rebellion that turns into a war and of course, the fate of the world hangs upon the bravery of a very young girl.
And yet… I couldn’t give myself up to this book.
As a book for young adults, I understand that some of the darker possibilities have to be toned down a bit, but books like “Divergent” and “Written In Red” or “Anna Dressed in Blood” manage to tap into a real sense of evil without having to get the splatter-movie level. “The Wretched of Muirwood” sells evil short. The bad guys are just that: bad guys. They are corrupt and brutal but they have all the reality of a faceless mob-boss in a Batman comic.
And the good guys are SO good, it’s like biting into an over-sweet apple: it sets your teeth on edge.
But the real source of my lack of comfort with this book is the magic system. In this world, magic comes from accessing The Medium. Good Guys, born into the right bloodlines, do this by surrendering themselves to the will of The Medium, closing their mind to doubt and fear and doing what The Medium tells them to. Bad guys use an amulet-based technology to force the Medium to do what THEY want to do. The price they pay for this is a slow but inexorable poisoning of their souls.
In other words, the Good Guys in this are fanatical Jihadists that The Medium uses as magical suicide bombers while the bad guys are trying to level the playing field between themselves and an elite set of families who refuse to share either knowledge or power. I hate everything about this set of ideas.
The fact that this snagged at me badly enough to reduce my enjoyment of the book is. of course. a tribute to the quality of the writing.
I knew with absolute certainty that, if I was in this world, I would be a bad guy. I just hope I’d make a better job of it.
What I enjoyed most about this book was the strong sense of place and season - I could almost feel the clean cold of winter and the purging heat of the sauna - and the clarity and credibility of the various candidates for the "he did it" role.
The central character, Cork O'Connor, an white skinned, red haired man with a native American grandmother that seems to give him a foot in both of the communities of Iron Lake, has the makings of a tragic hero - a committed sheriff, a loving husband, a doting father who falls from grace in every way possible when disaster strikes but who remains a good man, albeit one who cheats on his wife. I could not find my way inside this man's head. He seems to be a talented and tenacious investigator but he is not gifted with insight into his own character or that of his wife. Add to this a willingness to buy into the reality of Windigoes and you have someone I found hard to believe in. He is a pizza with way too many toppings.
The book is well plotted. The twists and turns are satisfying and credible and they kept me guessing (although not always caring)
Unfortunately, Kreuger's women are almost cartoons - young, beautiful, forgiving and doomed or strong, silent, fierce but loving or confident, self-absorbed but still loving. I couldn't imagine any of them as real.
He also slaps on foreboding like plaster on a wall.
The two combined turn the death of one of the women characters into an instrument of emotional manipulation of the reader that I found myself resenting.
Perhaps it was a book of its time (first published 1999), I know the subsequent books of the series won prizes. From me this one only won a "What a pity. That was almost a really good book."
This is a book to read when your brain needs a holiday. It's a light, fun, fast, slick, self-referential, tongue-in-cheek (I hope) cocktail of every genre you might be looking for.
We have an alternative earth in which Vampires and Werewolves and Fairies (collectively known as The Powers) dominate the law, the military and the entertainment business.
Our heroine graduated at the top of her law class, yet she shows few signs of being really bright. She gets her first job working for a White Fang (Vampire reference - not Jack London) Law firm. She achieves outcast status amongst her human colleagues because she was fostered in a Vampire home, falls victim to the office sexual predator, falls into an intrigue that pits her against Werewolf mercenaries who try (repeatedly) to kill her. She falls a lot in fact. And most of the time it saves her life or wins her a case. She may not be the world's brightest lawyer but she is supernaturally lucky.
Although she is often brave, taking on Werewolf assassins and chauvinist bosses with equal enthusiasm, she seems a little damaged - very dependent on "Daddy" both her natural father and her Vampire foster-father.
The book is well plotted and slickly written, with good banter, nice pace and well-choreographed action.
Bornikova raises her game as a writer when she is describing anything to do with horses and she manages a surprisingly (but appropriately) repulsive sex scene.
What I've described so far would have been enough for a pleasant read but probably wouldn't have had me looking for the next in the series (isn't everything in a series these days?)
What pushed me into the "OK, I'll try the next one" camp is the feeling that the damage our heroine sustained in her fostered-childhood and the supernatural luck that follows her and the unusual patronage that she receives from the Vampires, point to a longer, more interesting plot arc and to the possibility that our heroine may get past her daddy issues and end up seeking a reckoning with a set of gelding shears. One can but hope.
I liked Liam Campbell a little better in this book than in the first. I think there is hope for his redemption after all. It was refreshing to see that the pain Liam and Wy caused through their affair is not glossed over and continues to have an impact on not just their behaviour but their sense of who they are. Meeting Liam's father helped round him out and the addition of another trooper to the post gave a more realistic context for assessing him.
Dana Stabenow delivers two murder mysteries to move the plot along this time - a whole family killed on a fishing boat and a researcher killed at an archaeological dig. Both are well thought through, with multiple who-dunnit candidates and good local colour but for me Stabenow's strength lies in her willingness and ability to make me feel the emotional weight of the extinction of a whole family.
On the whole this remains a light, enjoyable read, with lots of jumping out of planes and on to boats and ruining of uniforms at a brisk pace. There are moments of introspection that make the action matter more and there is a continuous and skilful development of my knowledge of the local cast of characters that promises to build the books into a rich world rather than just a series of solved murders.
I'm looking forward to reading the next one.
I was pleased to get this morsel as a Christmas present from Molly Harper and audible.com.
This novella is a Christmas Special for all Half Moon Hollow fans. The gang is all there, even if assembling them is a rather clumsy process, there's a little bit of mystery, a confused love life, humorous disasters and just enough of cameo appearance from each character to remind you why you liked them without telling you anything you didn't know.
In the glow of the Christmas Tree lights and warmed by some good wine, this story slipped through my mind without causing any disturbance other than the occasional snort of laughter, until it ended more abruptly than even a novella should. Suddenly, I was listening to recipes being read out and wondering "did I fall asleep and miss something?" - well, it happens, especially with the wine and all - but it turned out that the story stopped without really ending.
If you're not a Half Moon Hollow Fan, don't start here. Start with "Nice Girls Don't Have Fangs" and savour the fun from the beginning.
If you are a fan, be encouraged, it sounds like more fun stuff with GiGi and the truly frightening Ophelia.
In 1957, two years before the first version of “Dorsai!” was serialized in in “Astounding Science Fiction”, Peter Graham coined the phrase: “The Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve.”
I started reading science fiction in the sixties when I was ten but I didn’t get to “Dorsai!” until my early twenties. I was still a twelve-year-old at heart and most science fiction excited me. I loved the puzzle-solving, the removal of constraints, the triumph of optimism. I was already being lured towards a different, more socially-based sensibility by writers like Ursula K Le Guin and her “Left Hand of Darkness” but I was still up for hard-core space opera when I read “Dorsai!”
At the time, I found it literally astonishing: the idea of a military race, bred to fight and lead and win, producing a genius who would shape the fate of many world’s by fighting as little as possible was new and fresh. The pace was brisk, The plot turned on its heals at lightning speed and the ending caught me completely by surprise. It was a celebration of what I was looking for in Science Fiction at the time.
So, when I saw the audio version on audible.com, I thought it would be fun to relive all of that.
It turns out, I’m not twelve any more. I was not thrilled. The plot is still clever and the pace is still brisk but how had I not seen how shallow the characters were, how ridiculously male-dominated the book was, how morally bankrupt the politics was and how dishonestly bloodless the fighting was?
“Dorsai!” is well read by Stefan Rudnicki and offers a pleasant way to while away the hours. It is a book of its time but that time is no longer mine.
I downloaded “Graveminder” because it was read by Emma Galvin (I fell in love with her voice when I listened to “Divergent”) and because the premise seemed promising – a town with restless dead who can only be quieted by a Graveminder and where the last Graveminder has just been killed. There was enough there to pique my interest.
Emma Galvin did the best job she could with the material at hand but the book dragged and dragged. The “reveals” were so slow that I became impatient with them. The book seemed to start several times. There was no narrative thrust to the tale.
“Graveminder” is peppered with good ideas and potentially interesting characters but none of them go anywhere.
I was left with the impression that Melissa Marr had come up with a great pitch for a book and then been unable to move it from idea to fully realized novel.
There was enough there to get me to think that other books by Melissa Marr might be worth a read but my recommendation for “Graveminder” is: don’t bother.
I downloaded the “Fire and Ice” the first book in Dana Stabenow’s Liam Campbell series, to help bridge the gap while I wait for the Brilliance Audio version of “Killing Grounds”, book 8 in the series Kate Shugak series, to come out in January 2014 to get another slice of Alaskan life.
What I got was something quite different from the Kate Shugak series, even down to the writing style but something that gave me another view on what Alaska can mean to people.
Liam Campbell is a newly-demoted State Trooper, who steps off the plane at the remote town he has been exiled to, and steps into a storm of violence, eccentricity, lust and death.
The story is well-plotted, seasoned with humor and chaos, stuffed with larger-than-life characters that we know will be in all the future books and it gives a vivid view of what it feels like to take on the potentially lethal task of “herring spotting” from a light plane in an overcrowded sky.
Stabenow’s books are never just about finding out who killed whom. They are an exploration of why people live the way they do and what it is about Alaska that drives particular behaviors.
In this book Alaska is being shown as a place where people go to make a new start. It’s also shown as place with all the usual problems of violence against women, alcohol addiction, child abuse and the pressures of a small town to make you behave “appropriately”.
I couldn’t quite bring myself to like Liam Campbell, the man with a tragic past and a grief-filled present. Then I realized that this was what Stabenow intended. I couldn’t like Liam because he doesn’t like himself. His distaste for himself at first appears to be a reaction to things he couldn’t control but feels accountable for: death’s on his watch, a tragedy in his family; things that would damage any man. As the book progresses we realize that the fundamental source of internal disgust is that he is a man who has betrayed himself and everyone he loves and he can’t forgive himself for that. The problem was, I couldn’t forgive him for it either.
There are some signs that Liam is on a journey of redemption. In future books, I hope to see something about him that will make me care. I’d like to see his self-pity and self-absorption replaced by some passion for making a difference by actually doing his job. Perhaps the reason Stabenow keeps Campbell out of his uniform for most of the book, is to signal his failure to engage and to become who he should be.
The sex scene at the beginning of the book caught me by surprise. It is graphic without being gratuitous but it goes way beyond anything you’d find in a Kate Shugak novel. The scene is actually well written – it describes arousal without being arousing. It is necessary because the sexual attraction between Campbell and the Wy is central to how Liam came to be where he is. I like the fact that Stabenow sets this up so that we understand that lust does not explain or excuse Liam’s actions any more than alcohol explains why someone is a drunk.
I enjoy Marguerite Gavin as the narrator of the Kate Shugak series. I wish someone else had been chosen to read the Liam Campbell series. I think a male reader would have been more appropriate and would have made a clearer separation between Liam and Kate. She didn’t distract me from the book, but she didn’t add to it either.
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