Apr 20 2018

Thud! by Terry Pratchett

Thud, like The Last Jedi, was much better than it had any right to be: deep into the series, with the previous outing in need of tightening up a bit (Star Wars: The Third Death Star needed much more than that, but nevermind). Thud also embodies a particular hazard of a long-running series: an item that everyone knows about but nobody saw fit to mention for thirty-two books. It draws its title from a board game that has supposedly been around Ankh-Morpork for many years, but was shown for the first time in Going Postal, the immediately preceding volume. I was skeptical of the multiplying subplots in Thud, whether there would be anything beyond comic relief in more than one of them.

The game is an abstracted recreation of the ancient battle of Koom Valley (the name plays on the Welsh loan word “cwm,” so that the name is “Valley Valley”) where dwarfs and trolls fought, each side maintaining that the other had lain in ambush. This tribal enmity has passed down through the generations, and any time that dwarfs and trolls come to blows a little bit of the spirit of Koom Valley is there.

Intimations of that spirit are filling Ankh-Morpork as Thud opens, with an anniversary coming up. “Saturday was Koom Valley Day and Ankh-Morpork was full of trolls and dwarfs, and you know what? The further dwarfs and trolls got from the mountains the more that bloody, bloody Koom Valley mattered. The parades were okay; the Watch had got good at keeping them apart, and anyway they were in the morning when everyone was still mostly sober. But when the dwarf bars and the troll bars emptied out in the evening, hell went for a stroll with its sleeves rolled up:” (p. 36) There’s diaspora politics, there’s a bit of Northern Ireland, and there’s the effect of alcohol on mobs, all in one tight paragraph.

Pratchett tells most of Thud from the point of view of Sam Vimes, commander of the Night Watch, now advanced to a Duke and a force in the city in his own right. In Going Postal and Monstrous Regiment, readers saw how much power has accrued to Vimes in the years and books since he first appeared as the occasionally sober commander of four watchmen. Vimes exercises his power with bedrock decency, but readers also see how much justice and mercy depend on the characters of the individuals dispensing them. In someone else’s hands, Vimes’ authority would be worrisome. Thud shows how hard Vimes has to work to keep that decency’s foundation from cracking. The Watch is accepting its first recruit who is a vampire. Vimes has led the way in opening the Watch to all of the different kinds of people who live (sometimes using the term loosely) in Ankh-Morpork: dwarfs, trolls, zombies, gnomes, gargoyles and more. By extension, he is helping to make the city as a whole more open to equality among its inhabitants. Neither Watch nor city are perfect on that score. There is a werewolf member of the Watch, but her changeable nature is not officially acknowledged. To date, there has never been a vampire in the Watch. Vimes is personally unsettled by the possibility, but Lord Vetinari, the city’s ruling Patrician, persuades him to set aside his personal misgivings in favor of consistent policy.

As the Watch has influenced the city, so the city influences the Watch. Although Vimes insists that each person is a member of the Watch first, communal tensions between dwarfs and trolls are starting to take their toll. Some of each have set down their badges and left the Watch. It has also grown enough as an institution that Vimes no longer has a personal connection with each member. All aspects of the situation are made worse when a dwarf firebrand is murdered and a troll club found nearby. Koom Valley is about to come to Ankh-Morpork.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/04/20/thud-by-terry-pratchett/

Apr 19 2018

An Interview With Alice Blanchard, author of A Breath After Drowning

Q: Every book has its own story about how it came to be conceived and written as it did. How did A Breath After Drowning evolve?

A: I was haunted by the image of a mother abandoning her daughter in the waiting room of a psychiatric hospital—silver crosses draped around the young girl’s neck and rosaries wrapped around her wrists. Why? How could a mother abandon her child like that? I became obsessed with this betrayal, and it ignited my imagination.

Q: You’ve said on your website that “Dreams inspire writing.” How did you learn to translate the ephemera of dreams into the (relative) concrete of words when you were first starting?

A: Each one of my novels was inspired by a dream. Before I wrote “A Breath After Drowning,” I had a dream that my husband and I came home and couldn’t get our front door open. I slid the key into the lock but it wouldn’t turn. Inside, the phone was ringing off the hook, and I knew in my heart something horrible had happened. That dream was the seed that grew into my new novel.

Q: I really took to heart your words on How To Be A Writer, one of the first blog posts on your website. I would probably do better myself for spending less time on the Internet. Do you adhere to any particular writing regimen, disconnecting aside?

A: I wake up at four or five in the morning. There’s a narrow window of time and mood that opens and I need to jump through it or it might close again. So I sit down at my desk and start writing. If I get stuck, I follow Ernest Hemingway’s advice: “Write the truest thing you know.” That always works for me.

Q: Aside from writing thriller novels, you’ve also won awards for your short stories. I love your quote on marrying the sweeping scope of thrillers with the personal epiphanies of short stories in your fiction. Do you ever find yourself preferring writing one form to the other?

A: I love them both equally. But there are fundamental differences—in the short story, I’m examining my main character’s most profound moment through a microscope. With novels, I’m viewing an entire galaxy through a telescope.

Q: We usually like to ask whether an author is a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants) or a plotter, but I imagine that, in order to write any sort of mystery novel convincingly, you have to plot heavily. Did you find yourself surprised, however, by any unexpected directions in the plot in A Breath After Drowning took outside of what you’d planned?

A: I’m both. I write an outline, but I love being surprised by what organically happens, as well. For example, in “A Breath After Drowning,” I’d planned early on for one of my characters to be deeply evil. But then, months later, another character became the villain. I love when that happens, and it happens all the time. In truth, writing fiction is a profoundly mysterious process.

Q: A Breath After Drowning provides an intimate look at the mental health care system from intake to outpatient, historical to present, especially for troubled adolescents. I was impressed by your research on the subject, and am curious as to your opinion of the state of mental health care in America today.

A: Allow me to answer that question more personally. My father was bipolar, and growing up with that was like riding an emotional roller coaster. It has affected my entire life and informs everything I write. But there are good therapists out there who can guide you through the pain and turmoil.

Q: What is the first book you read that made you think, “I have got to write something like this someday!”

A: “The Wolves of Willoughby Chase” by Joan Aiken. It inspired me to write my first novel when I was seven years old. It was a murder mystery, and it began, “It was a rainy day in Lond, England. It was raining halfway up to my ankles.” LOL.

Q: What can you tell us about your next project?

A: I’m writing a witchcraft thriller.

Q: Tell us why you love your book!

A: I love the nasty dark bristles of evil juxtaposed against innocence.

~~~

Author Links:

AliceBlanchard.com

~~~

A Breath After Drowning was published on April 10th 2018 by Titan Press and is available through all good book sellers. My review of the book itself is here.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/04/19/an-interview-with-alice-blanchard-author-of-a-breath-after-drowning/

Apr 17 2018

The Gatekeepers by Chris Whipple

I read The Gatekeepers, a book about White House chiefs of staff, like the grad student and extremely minor Washington insider that I used to be: acknowledgments first, then scan the bibliography, then a look at the notes, then the main text. In this case, I also read the last chapter, which is about the first year of Donald Fucking Trump’s administration, before any others. It will not surprise you that Trump and his enablers are screwing up the chief of staff role in pretty much all of the known ways, although they do not (yet) seem to have invented any new ways.

The last American president to function reasonably well without a designated chief of staff was Lyndon Johnson, whose tenure in the White House ended nearly 50 years ago. Organizing the executive office of the president around certain set functions with a chief of the staff is a system that evolved from practices that Eisenhower brought in, drawing on his experience as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during the Second World War. After nearly half a century of practice, the White House staff system has become an enduring function of American government and a crucial one for giving it direction. Whipple’s book, which draws on a documentary film he made on the same subject, describes how the role has evolved over time, and how each chief has shaped the presidency in which he (and they have all be he, to date) has served.

As Whipple lays it out, the role of chief of staff is a solved problem. A new president, who has probably campaigned on bringing change to Washington, needs a chief who knows the capital’s ways; this will cause rifts with the people from the campaign, and probably with the people who worked closely with the president at lower levels of government. The president’s most valuable asset is his or her time (because everyone only has twenty-four hours each day, and even Bill Clinton couldn’t work all of them), and the chief of staff must be able to enable the president to maximize that irreplaceable asset. That includes organizing the schedule around the kind of down time that each president needs. Obama was not at his best when he missed out on his regular family time; Nixon needed time alone in his study; Clinton needed time to talk to people and to schmooze.

Continue reading

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/04/17/the-gatekeepers-by-chris-whipple/

Apr 12 2018

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club Book 1) by Theodora Goss

Delightful novel, and well worth the rush read.

This is the first in the chronicles of the Athena Club, a group of women brought together by the fact that they are all monsters. Or, to be more precise, the daughters/offspring/creation of mad scientists (as well as the doughty Mrs Poole and the plucky Alice. Let’s not be classist and forget the servants, after all.) Their leader is Mary Jekyll, who initially consults with Sherlock Holmes and John Watson after the death of her mother leaves her impoverished. She hopes that some of the documents her mother has left her might help in pursuing the murderer Edward Hyde, whom she remembers from when she was a young girl. There was, she believes, a cash reward for information leading to his apprehension, money she desperately needs to keep body and soul together. Her investigations lead her first to the incorrigible Diana Hyde, the 14 year-old daughter of said murderer, who insists that the two are sisters, a claim Mary scarcely wants to believe. But as they encounter (and essentially gather) more women to their monstrous regiment, Mary discovers that there are more things in heaven and earth than she’d ever dreamt possible.

The Strange Case Of The Alchemist’s Daughter is a wonderfully imaginative retelling of the many, many mad scientist fables of early science fiction, inspired by Theodora Goss’ curiosity as to why so many of these scientists chose to destroy their female creations while letting the males run amuck. It’s charmingly written with frequent interjections from each member. Ms Goss does an excellent job of keeping each voice distinctive, even as she stays true to the tones, if not necessarily the details, of the source materials.

My one teeny tiny critique is that life was actually way, way worse for the Victorian poor than Ms Goss described. Every time I read of a prostitute with decent lodgings or sitting comfortably by a pub fire with barley water, I was thrown out of the otherwise quite immersive world-building. Doss houses and a mug of cheap gin were more the order of the day. But that’s a small criticism of an otherwise very entertaining novel. I’m very much looking forward to reading of what the Athena Club will do next, tho boo-urns, I have to wait till July for the next book.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/04/12/the-strange-case-of-the-alchemists-daughter-the-extraordinary-adventures-of-the-athena-club-book-1-by-theodora-goss/

Apr 10 2018

A Breath After Drowning by Alice Blanchard

Kate Wolf is a psychiatrist specializing in at-risk adolescents. She has a great boyfriend whom she loves almost as much as she loves her job, but her family history has made it so she has massive intimacy issues. Her father is a family physician and someone she’s always striven to emulate, but their relationship is fraught due to his emotional coldness, which has grown more and more frigid since the twin tragedies of losing her mother first to suicide then her younger sister six years later to the murderer next door. As the execution date of Henry Blackwood draws closer, Kate is more than ready to leave with her boyfriend on a media-free vacation. Unfortunately, a tragedy at work keeps her in Boston, where she’s approached by a former cop who is unconvinced of Blackwood’s guilt. As Kate begins to realize that the real killer might still be out there, she also starts to worry that she’s losing her grip on reality, as family secrets and a madness that refuses to be sated threaten to take over her life and destroy it.

A Breath After Drowning explores trust issues on several levels, before neatly severing, or at least casting severe doubt on, the reader’s belief in each of the people Kate relies on through the course of this book. It’s an unsettling experience, losing all your narrative moorings, and one of the best evocations of paranoia I’ve experienced in a long time. I trusted no one, strongly suspecting all the characters that Alice Blanchard built for us, and really enjoyed the weird emotional parallel I felt to poor Kate lost in a snowstorm about three quarters of the way through. And still I was surprised by the revelation of the actual killer!

A Breath After Drowning Blog Tour Schedule

Usually with thrillers, the ending after the climactic reveal feels like a bit of a let-down, with damaged souls trying to fumble their way back to normalcy. But I was genuinely heartened by the ending of ABAD, with its promise of health and wellness in every respect. A very satisfying thriller from a writer who knows how to work the reader’s emotions.

The Frumious Consortium is participating in our very first book tour with the publication of ABAD and will be featuring an interview with Ms Blanchard next week! If you’re interested in reading more, check out the other blogs on the tour, and come back in nine days to hear more from the author herself!

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/04/10/a-breath-after-drowning-by-alice-blanchard/

Apr 09 2018

Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos #1) by Dan Simmons

I am getting So. Fucking. Tired of picking up a sci-fi “classic” and having to read through pages and pages of barely endurable garbage to come to the conclusion of “what the fuck was that?!” And I don’t say this about all the classics, obviously: decades on, Ender’s Game, Parable Of The Sower and A Fire In The Deep are still amazing, mind-bending, minimally problematic books that, unlike fucking OverHypedrion, stand up as individual novels without needing another whole four hundred pages to be a complete story. And look, Hyperion isn’t as godawful as Shadow And Claw or Gardens Of The Moon: there’s some good writing and storytelling in this volume but that ending blew. As did Martin Silenius’ story. As did, oh my God, the total adolescence petulance masquerading as the traitor’s story. As a dying utterance “A plague on both your houses!” is striking, poetic and justified. As a way of life, it’s petty as shit. And the traitor cries at the betrayals, and I’m supposed to feel sad? Gtfo.

Without a doubt, the most compelling tales were the more overtly religious ones. I stayed up waaaaay too late at night finishing the priests’ tale, which was horrifying and good. So for the stupid book to end without even hinting at a resolution was a cheap let-down, especially in relation to Lamia’s non-answer to Hoyt’s assertion regarding the cruciform. Seriously, just publish this as a single novel with the second book that everyone seems to love and I’d (probably) be a happier camper. As it is, I’m just irritated at the fact that this book goes on forever without actually coming to any sort of decent resolution short of obtaining a whole other book.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/04/09/hyperion-hyperion-cantos-1-by-dan-simmons/

Apr 07 2018

Raven Stratagem (The Machineries of Empire #2) by Yoon Ha Lee

If you’re new to the Machineries Of Empire series, start with my review here.

So when I first began reading this I thought, “Wait, what, my memory must really be going because this is totally different from what I remembered of the ending of Ninefox Gambit.” Then I got through over half of the book before realizing that I’m not as decrepit as I thought, and ooh yeah, Yoon Ha Lee knows how to throw his narrative punches!

That said, I did not rate Raven Stratagem as highly as NG, mostly because of the glaringly obvious Andal connection, but also because, tho it was pretty great when it came to action and math and deception (and it made me root for Shuos Mikodez! I was not expecting that at all!) it lacked a certain poignancy that it might easily have reached (and that its predecessor did reach,) particularly in the later chapters with Khiruev and Istradez. Also, it seems odd to me that one can voluntarily reject formation instinct after it’s been indoctrinated/inoculated. I suppose it could be argued that DNA is not destiny, but if it’s so easy to throw off formation instinct, wouldn’t more Kel be doing it in the heat of battle?

Anyway, I was left wondering at the end where Mr Lee could possibly be going with the third and final book in the series, Revenant Gun, but I suppose no one knows where Nirai Kujen has gone or what he’s up to. I’m very excited to find out, tho!

See what Doug had to say in his review here.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/04/07/raven-stratagem-the-machineries-of-empire-2-by-yoon-ha-lee/

Apr 04 2018

School for Psychics (School for Psychics #1) by K.C. Archer

Imagine, if you will, the absurdly unlikely but highly entertaining hijinks of the TV show Quantico starring a Jessica Jones type, where all the cast have mental superpowers. That is the fun romp that is K. C. Archer’s School For Psychics, in this case the Whitfield Institute to which our heroine, the wisecracking, damaged Teddy Cannon, is recruited after being banned from every casino on the Vegas strip. Teddy has always been able to read people in a fashion that has pretty much caused her to isolate herself from everyone except her beloved adoptive parents. She parlays this skill, however, into profits at the poker tables, to the chagrin of the casinos who ban her before she can finish paying back the stakes she owes a Serbian mobster (in what was the weakest part of the narrative to me, the fact that she didn’t sock aside money from her winnings, the hallmark of a gambling addict, but otherwise never displayed any other symptoms of addiction once she’d left Vegas.)

Anyway, the Whitfield Institute trains psychics for placement with law enforcement agencies, and Teddy is eager to take the opportunity to make something of her life after flaming out of Stanford. She joins an assortment of 20-somethings who each have their own set of skills and secrets, and begins a rigorous training program at the secluded island campus. But when a routine assignment reveals that her mentor may be the very antithesis of everything he’s taught her, and that the riddle of her own mysterious past may not be as unsolvable as it seems, Teddy finds herself and her friends in great danger as they race to uncover a truth that seems to be coming for them whether they like it or not.

This was a super fun book that felt like it would make for a great TV show. The paranormal “science” wasn’t the most rigorous even for that field of study but it was less insulting than some of the pseudoscience that peppers a lot of mainstream entertainment today, so the lack of precision didn’t spoil my experience at all. I also really enjoyed watching Teddy’s character grow and learn from her time at Whitfield, even if I’m more #TeamLucas than Nick. I’m excited to see where K. C. Archer goes with this series (and hope that Teddy doesn’t go the route of Season 2 Jessica Jones, who is high on a cocktail of self-pity and narcissism that is growing increasingly hard to watch.)

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/04/04/school-for-psychics-school-for-psychics-1-by-k-c-archer/

Apr 04 2018

Iron Gold (Red Rising Saga #4) by Pierce Brown

One of the great joys to me of reading Pierce Brown is the gif-heavy conversations I have throughout with Alec about my feeeeeeelings. Because Mr Brown gives me so many feelings, tho this book, I admit, was a little less superlative than the original Red Rising trilogy. It’s hard, of course, to scale the same epic heights reached in the original, which is a tale of rebellion and rage against an oppressive regime that has genetically and socially engineered its citizens to comply in a system designed to enrich the highest echelons at the expense of the lowest. And now that Darrow, our hero of the original trilogy, has broken the chains of oppression, he finds that the burden of building a just society in lieu of what he destroyed is far more difficult than he ever imagined.

Beginning ten years after the close of the first trilogy, Darrow is a warrior exhausted by war who needs to stay on the offensive. The Senate representing the demokracy his wife established is even more weary, and tells him in no uncertain terms that they will no longer give him the manpower or funding to continue. But Darrow cannot listen, so a full quarter of this book is about his rage and despair.

Unlike its predecessors, Iron Gold is told from multiple perspectives, so instead of just Darrow, we also see the stories of Ephraim, a jaded Grey who has become a freelance thief; Lyria, a Red doing her best to eke out a decent living in a refugee camp, and Lysander, the most obnoxious dipshit I’ve ever had to read about. For real, three times he’s told not to do an important thing and three times he convinces himself that said thing is exactly what he should do. He’s the BIGGEST idiot.

Despite my ongoing annoyance with Lysander, the varied storylines are quite entertaining, his included, but I felt that the most meaningful was Lyria’s. The persecution of her people by the Red Hand has all too many uncomfortable parallels with what happens to groups seen as “collaborators” in the aftermath of violent regime change. That said, there was never one climactic moment where I felt “Mr Brown has done it again!” as I did with the previous books. Of course, this one is less self-contained than the others, so I imagine we’re building to those moments in future installments. I can’t wait to read them (and gif my emotions to Alec, of course.)

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/04/04/iron-gold-red-rising-saga-4-by-pierce-brown/

Mar 31 2018

Brick Lane by Monica Ali

This powerful book about a woman discovering her own agency through the lens of the Bangladeshi immigrant experience surprised me at how timeless it felt even though it’s set at the turn of the 21st century. It’s very much in the tradition of classics by Thomas Hardy and Willa Cather, documenting with a fine eye for time and place the interior lives of their flawed and sympathetic characters. It actually came as a surprise to me that this book chronicled the period that it did as it felt somehow older, less modern, but to a very large extent that speaks less to the book than to the rapid tumult of progress in the era covered and, more pertinently, in the places it details. Bangladesh and England with their fraught histories with one another and on their own make excellent backdrops for a study of a woman who learns that there is more to life than just existing.

My only criticism of this novel is that it felt less like a novel than a series of vignettes strung together, mostly competently but occasionally with enough of a leap in the narrative to make the gap noticeable. There are a lot of shockingly underwritten scenes, in the manner of Leo Tolstoy, but unlike the great Russian, Monica Ali wisely refuses to compensate by overwriting other scenes to a dull and grisly death.

I requested this book from my library because I stayed very nearby Brick Lane, in Bethnal Green, when I was in London briefly earlier this year. I was actually a bit disappointed reading it because the Brick Lane I know is quite different just over a decade on, tho I interpret this as an improvement and another sign of rapid progress to the good. Contrasting my visit with the book did emphasize again how oddly underwritten the riot scene, among others, was: Ms Ali is not quite as good describing exteriors as she is at emotion. The novel is still shockingly good for a debut, and definitely belongs on a shelf next to its predecessors as a modern classic.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/03/31/brick-lane-by-monica-ali/