Monday, June 24, 2013

Suggest a Title! Win a Prize!

It may not have escaped the attention of very alert readers that the Indiscriminate Reader has just a touch of the old OCD. Punctuation errors weigh on my mind, tiny inconsistencies in plots prey on my soul, and in this case, I haven't yet reviewed books by authors whose last names start with I, L, N, O, P, Q, U, V, X, Y, or Z, and it's driving me nuts.

Now is your chance to see the Indiscriminate Reader post the review of your dreams! Provided, that is, that the author's last name starts with one of the letters above and/or that you agree with my eventual review -- so not all that likely. Let's rephrase. Now is your chance to see the Indiscriminate Reader post another review!

Pride, honor, and a grim satisfaction at being proved entirely right about yet another piece-of-crap book will prevent me from turning down even the most spiteful and sadistic of suggestions* (talking to you, Cousin E.), but I urge my gentle readers to try to think of something I might actually enjoy.

So write a comment, write an email, or just give me a call (Hi, Mom!!), and suggest! Your prize will be the review. Really, that's it.

* With one exception: I will not, under any circumstances, read or review any book by Stieg Larsson. No matter how many kinky girls with tattoos ride big symbolic motorcycles through the pages of those books, nothing can make me wade through hundreds of chapters of stiffly translated Swedish politics in order to get there. You can withhold ice cream forever. I just won't.

Monday Classic: The Scarlet Letter

Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Genre: Utter, miserable crap
Original Pub. Date: 1850

For the seven people in the western hemisphere who remain blissfully unaware of this pernicious work of student-torturing literature, The Scarlet Letter is about adultery, mystical signs in the sky, and a nasty little demon child who exists only to add another layer of metaphor to the novel.

The depressing and unedifying plot: Hester Prynne, who is married and not living with her husband, but assumed to be single by her Boston neighbors, sleeps with one of the local ministers, gets pregnant, bears a daughter, and then is publicly shamed with a scarlet "A" for "adultery" that she has to wear sewn to her clothes. She refuses to name her lover, and the useless coward lets her suffer alone -- probably because he's a spineless douchebag, although other interpretations doubtless exist. Hester's nasty, one-dimensional doctor husband shows up and blackmails her into not revealing who he is; he then spends the rest of the book taunting her and trying to figure out the identity of Hester's lover.

This is, allow me to note, the one and only point in The Scarlet Letter at which anyone does anything with which a normal person could sympathize. Of course the betrayed husband wants to know who slept with his wife. And, sensibly, he thinks the jerk ought to be punished just like Hester is. After this brief moment of clarity, the novel meanders on to the next crazy person . . .

Pearl, the baby daughter, who grows into a psychopath child. When the authorities try to take her away from Hester, you'd think this would be a relief, but for some reason Hester fights to keep the horrible little yelling creature with her, and the story goes on. There's some more blackmail and taunting, and pointless wandering in the woods. That fills up most of the middle of the book. Finally, because even the more literary editors of the nineteenth century had to be telling Hawthorne, at this point, that something had better happen sometime or the publication deal was off, Hester and her lover agree to run away together and start over in England.

Scarlet As appear on the lover's chest, and in the sky, and for all I know in the whole of Boston's Puritan breakfast gruel, and then the lover and the husband both die. Not, mind you, in any kind of exciting way -- a duel, aliens, an invasion of the French, etc. -- but just because they're both sick and lame. One of the two, I think the gross husband, leaves Pearl enough money that she gets to go to Europe and live happily ever after; meanwhile, Hester lives a dull and A-emblazoned life until she dies too, at which point she's buried next to her lover under a tombstone with, you got it, a dumb scarlet A on it. Why? Because nothing in this novel gets to be vowel-free.

Other questions include: Why didn't they just go to England in the first place and live happily ever after? Why didn't Hester go somewhere else with her baby before her horrid husband tracked her down and/or she was publicly shamed? Why did Arthur, the stupid lover, not act like half a man and step up? (He was feeling guilty, you see, so that absolved him of doing anything practical like supporting the woman he loved or taking care of their child. Makes sense.) Why didn't Hawthorne just take some damn anti-depressants before he wrote the third most* purposeless, demoralizing novel of all time? And what is the deal with that crackhead Pearl, seriously?

So few of these questions have answers. Maybe most of the above are covered by "Hawthorne was being paid by the word"? Four stars for the author's beautiful writing, clever use of symbolism, and philosophical, ethical, and theological scholarship; two stars for using those in place of logic, sympathetic characters, and/or a plot in which something happens about which someone gives a damn.

* 1) The Grapes of Wrath and 2) The Sun Also Rises (see the two-haiku reviews of these for more details).

Friday, June 14, 2013

Howl's Moving Castle

Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Genre: Fantasy/YA
Original Pub. Date: 1986

I'm not sure how I missed this one, since I was a bit of a Diana Wynne Jones junkie as a kid, but it somehow never made it into my hot little hands until a couple of weeks ago. I still haven't seen the movie, and I don't intend to -- anyone looking for an adaptation review, go elsewhere.*

Like all of Jones's books, or at least those I've read, Howl's Moving Castle is an object lesson in what other young adult fantasy authors are doing wrong. Of course, it was written in a kinder, gentler age, when it wasn't considered standard for tween girls to fantasize about losing their virginities to much older men who turn into animals on the weekend. So there's that.

Also like all of Jones's books, or at least those I've read, this book features a complex plot, a dash of slapstick, and a little bit of actual menace for savor. As the story opens, our heroine Sophie is lamenting the fact that she's stuck at home making hats while her two younger sisters are off following their dreams (a bakery and witchcraft lessons, respectively). As the eldest, fairy tale law decrees that she can't have any adventures -- at least until another witch takes a dislike to Sophie and turns her into an old woman out of spite.

Sophie runs away and ends up joining the moving-castle household of the charming, undisciplined lothario Wizard Howl, who's also under a curse. Other characters include a fire demon bound to serve in the fireplace (who refuses to be cooked over unless he gets some of the bacon), an apprentice wizard, a semi-sentient scarecrow, sisters in disguise, some witches, and the king. Trying to describe the plot would merely give spoilers, so suffice to say this is a charming, light read suitable for anyone who's sick of angsty vampires.

Lately I've complained about how all the mainstream fantasy book lists I find are actually made up of young adult fantasy. The strong implication was that young adult fantasy isn't very good, so it's time to qualify that statement. Adult fantasy isn't very good these days, either; the big difference between the two seems to be that in adult fantasy, the gross vampire sex takes place right in front of the reader, while in YA fantasy it often happens off-screen, as it were. Or, if the YA fantasy is of a different stripe, no sex happens at all, and instead all females within range are forcibly empowered, whether they like it or not.

This doesn't generally apply to YA fantasy written before the last fifteen years or so, and so all negative commentary on the subgenre should be assumed to apply only after that cut-off point. No one is empowered in Howl's Moving Castle, off-beat sexual antics are (appropriately for the target age group) frowned on a bit, and the story's entertaining. Three and a half stars.

* Gosh, I think I'm really getting the hang of that increasing blog traffic thing!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Administration

Author: Manna Francis
Genre: Science Fiction/Erotica
Original Pub Date: ??

The Administration is a series of novels, novellas, and short stories, all of them comprising one total narrative. At present, the series has several books' worth of words, and I'm not going to bother listing the various titles in their online and print incarnations. If you're interested in finding out more -- and I recommend strongly that you change your mind if you are -- you can find the whole series by Googling the author's name. I'm not even going to provide a link, because there's no way to get a sponge and 409 into all the little crevices of my blog.

You may have gathered that this series wasn't my favorite. Why, then -- and I realize this is a perpetual question from my imaginary audience of thousands (Hi, Mom!!) -- did I read most of it*, including the first full novel and a selection of novellas?

That's not an answer I have readily available, maybe because most of what usually passes for thought and interest in life was drained out of me by the dull, grinding repetitiveness of this story. I think I kept reading because so many great reviews on Goodreads praised the series for its creative, detailed dystopian setting, awesome sex scenes, and deep character development, and I kept waiting to see if any of those aspects of the book would appear. (Spoiler: they didn't.)

Let's take each of these alleged elements one at a time. First, we have the setting, "New London," which is just like regular London except that buildings are made of glass and metal, everyone talks on little earpiece headsets rather than handset phones, and computers are all touch screen.

I mean, what an imagination, right?

Then there's the eponymous Administration, almost the EU under a different name. I don't have a window into Francis's brain, but if this isn't intended to be biting political commentary on the fact that the EU is basically a reboot of the Committee of Public Safety, then the author has no sense of humor. Without a few of the slightly more futuristic gadgets (brain-reading interrogation equipment, for example -- oh, no, wait, we've almost got that too), the Administration could have been literally the EU government under a different name. While I couldn't agree more that it's dystopian, the setting basically whisked me away to a world in which everything is exactly as it seems.

Next: the awesome sex scenes. Objectively, if you like bondage, I guess they could be okay. Not good. Okay.

And on to character development, a.k.a. strike three. There are two main characters in this series: Toreth, a mean, nasty sex addict/occasional rapist who works as an Administration interrogator and investigator, and Warrick, a hot, suave, sophisticated computer programmer** who gets involved with Toreth after a couple of murders that take place while the victims are using Warrick's company's virtual reality technology. Both of these characters left me cold. Toreth is a sociopath. Not a seeming-sociopath using a lack of outward emotion to disguise deep feelings, not a semi-sociopath who kills lots of people in the service of some twisted morality, but truly a self-centered bastard who doesn't experience normal human attachment and lacks all empathy. It takes real skill to write a true sociopath who can still inspire interest and sympathy in the reader -- Exhibit A: Jane Emerson (Doris Egan) and her character Tal from City of Diamond -- and Francis doesn't have it.

Warrick, on the other hand, acts like an S&M robot throughout most of the series. His only motivations appear to be his corporation, which ceases to be a priority as soon as he wants to get laid, and sex, which seems like it might pall after a while, particularly when your chosen partner is unpleasant, rude, cheats constantly, and has all the personality of an alcoholic blowfish. Both of these characters are utterly, irredeemably charmless. The one-dimensional secondary characters, who exist only to warn Warrick that Toreth is bad for him or to codependently enable Toreth's gross personality disorders, are better only in that they appear less frequently. I guess these reminders that the relationship is sick and stupid exist so that we can root for those crazy kids to make their star-crossed relationship work? Or maybe the author really does have a sense of humor.

I'm starting to feel a little sick myself just thinking about these crappy people and their horribly disgusting antics***, so let's move on to the reason why this series is getting one star rather than the generous one and a half I might have granted otherwise.

This series is boring. I think the kind term for the meat of the first book's narrative might be "police procedural," but you could get the full experience of the first novel in The Administration by getting a job as a sheriff's office filing clerk, doing your job for 80 hours straight, and then hitting yourself with a riding crop a few times.

Toreth goes to Warrick's company office. He interviews several people; their responses, no matter how easily -- oh, how very, very easily! -- they could be summarized in two sentences, always take ten paragraphs. No dialogue is paraphrased. Then, Toreth goes out into the hall and gives some predictable orders to his staff. Did the witness tell Toreth there was a problem with the security tapes? There will then be a page of Toreth telling his security tape person to check all the security tapes.

If we're very lucky, there are then more witnesses, whose enthralling recitations of their movements to and from the company lobby will be recounted in every detail -- and in their own rambling words. After a few more rounds of this, with explanations each, single, time of how Toreth set up the camera for the interview, or noticed that someone else had already set it up for him, he leaves the company offices.

Back in his own office, he then reviews all the files. At length. And then the other files. And then the interview transcripts. And then some other files come in. He reviews those. Then, he calls someone in some other department and asks them for an update. None of this thrilling dialogue is paraphrased, either, because who would want to be left out of the loop?

No sex scenes, no matter how spicy, could compensate for page after weary page of watching one of the least engaging characters I have ever encountered do paperwork. As with The Road, I don't think even a sudden attack of cannibals could have saved this story. One star.****

* Not quite all. Unlike one of the protagonists, I'm not a masochist.

** At least the author has an imagination sometimes.

*** And I wish I meant the bondage. Out of bed, these characters display even more mental problems than they do in it.

**** A quick note about star ratings for self-published (but reasonably polished) works like The Administration. I'm never going to review a self-published book that doesn't meet at least some basic standard for mechanical writing skill. I fully support self-published authors, since the mainstream publishing industry leaves something to be desired, and this means 1) I'll offer self-published authors who meet a minimum standard for professionalism the same respect I'd give normally published authors and review their books on the same playing field (for good or ill), and 2) I'm not going to stoop to picking on delusional losers who can't even write a coherent sentence but insist on putting their work out there anyway. (This doesn't mean I won't pick on delusional losers who can't write a coherent sentence and who have also been edited by a nominal professional, ahem, E.L. James.)

Monday, June 10, 2013

King Lear: A Two-Haiku Review

King Lear, by William Shakespeare

Which daughter is best?
Not the one who acts all nice.
No, that's too easy.

Instead, I'll wander
around this dumbass damp moor
until we all die.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The God Eaters

Author: Jesse Hajicek
Genre: Fantasy/Gay
Original Pub. Date: 2006*

Browsing last night on Goodreads for something, god please anything, new to read, I had a horrifying (if belatedly logical) realization: the many shelves of Teen Paranormal Romance one can find at Barnes and Noble, if one is sufficiently unlucky, aren't just there because someone in the corporate office hates America and wants us all to die. They're there because that's actually what the fuck people want to read. Look at any "fantasy" book list on Goodreads; they're all actually young adult romance between people whose names have apostrophes in them, or who own pet unicorns, or who "empower" young women by representing nontraditional gender roles -- though, to be fair, only in the same ways that all other young adult romance protagonists represent nontraditional gender roles. You're not going to find any teen paranormal heroines genuinely enjoying swigging Scotch, or having meaningless sex with a stripper and then high-fiving their friends.

So if you're wondering why I'm trolling the depths of the Internet searching for off-beat self-published fantasy like The God Eaters, wonder no longer. The gay fantasy I've been finding is some of the only fantasy written for adults that's out there right now. It also tends to be a little more creative; since most of these writers know full well that their destiny, without self-publication, is to molder in a towering New York slush pile for all eternity, there's a little less incentive to stick with commercial genre trends. Not to mention that after reading a few Twilight-like junior estrogen fests, it's kind of nice to start a book absolutely certain that it won't include any horny adolescent girls. And boys whine less, even gay ones in books.

The main characters of The God Eaters did whine a bit more than I had patience for in places -- this is very much the deeply wounded soul redeemed by love kind of story, a Regency rake courting a bluestocking made both gay and magical -- but overall, I was impressed with the quality of the characterization. While a little emo, the protagonists were appealing and rounded enough. It probably helps that I have a weakness for the closet-romantic cold-blooded killer trope, as shown in my review of Villains by Necessity; these guys wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea.

I was actually impressed with the quality overall, especially given that I read a self-published online version of the novel. I found some typos, but frankly fewer than one would usually find in a mainstream publication. The writing quality was generally good, much better than the average for a self-edited manuscript.**

So with these housekeeping details out of the way, let's move on to the meat: the fantasy part of the fantasy novel in question. I was underwhelmed by the world as a whole, although the individual settings were well-described and vivid. The God Eaters takes place in a thinly disguised 19th century American West, with the Native Americans turned into some other type of native people with a name I can't bother to remember. The white imperialists (because what would a contemporary fantasy be without white imperialists?) are all conservative religious types who follow one god out of the many who used to be running around amok. (I'm willing to forgive this, though, simply because the great god of the oppressed native folks also turns out to be a prick.) Not the most creative use of history to create a fantasy world, but I give some points for fictionalized North America rather than fictionalized Europe or the Middle East.

On the theme of "not terribly original," some never-revealed proportion of the population has magical Talents*** that make them able to throw stuff around with their minds, start fires, read emotions, and so on. Our Talented heroes, as the story begins, have both been arrested for different crimes (the bluestocking wrote seditious pamphlets, the cold-blooded killer cold-bloodedly killed a whole bunch of people). Instead of receiving the usual summary execution, they're sent to a special creepy prison for magical prisoners in order to be experimented upon, oppressed, and generally cackled at by mustache-twirling Nazi types.

After the predictable escape, our heroes strike out across the desert, have a few adventures with starvation and floods and so on, and also fall in love. That part is all right -- I thought the author wrote a fairly compelling romance, even if the fantasy part of the novel was a little vague in places.

Eventually, in between running around in the desert and getting in fights (also not a bad part of the story), they figure out that both of them are kind-of sort-of aspects of some gods who have been driven into hiding by the white imperialists' god, whom they must then defeat.Since the god-eating part of the story appears shockingly late in the novel for being in the title, I'm sorry to spoil the story somewhat by revealing it, but since it's not so badly done, it's worth mentioning as a positive for The God Eaters. I've reviewed two other books recently that featured that good old people-turning-into-gods chestnut, The Rifter -- which pulled it off -- and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which emphatically didn't. While this book is nowhere near as good as the former, this author did manage something that the author of the latter did not: turning people into gods without resorting to ellipses, sentence fragments, or incest in order to disguise a lack of logic.

The God Eaters gets a solid three stars within contemporary fantasy, although I wouldn't go higher than two and a half compared to non-contemporary fantasy. It's very hard for me not to give this book more stars than it truly deserves; it was such a relief to find a fantasy novel that wasn't aimed at twelve-year-olds.

* This is the publication date for the paperback version that I found on Goodreads. I think the electronic version has been around longer than that. No one really cares about these details anyway, so let's all go back to the blog post and forget how OCD I am, m'kay?

** Actually, I have no proof that it was self-edited, but a few comments left by the author about having accidentally uploaded older versions of the story suggested it. If it was, then I compliment the author on his skills. The prose is nice and tight in most places, it flows well, and I was never confused about what the hell was going on, which is sometimes hard to pull off when a writer edits his own work.

*** Yeah, yeah, but at least it's better than "Gifts," right?

Friday, May 10, 2013

Dead Ever After

Author: Charlaine Harris
Genre: Mystery/Urban fantasy
Original Pub. Date: 2013

Spoiler Alert. Spoiler Alert. This is not a test of the Emergency Spoiler Alert System.

Through the miracle efficiency of Amazon's fulfillment services, I got this book in the mail the day before it was officially released, and yet I missed every book reviewer's happiest moment: panning a book before most readers even have it in their hot little hands.

That just goes to show you how utterly unexcited I was by the thirteenth and final installment in Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire Mysteries series. The biggest moment for me was opening the box a day early; it was all downhill from there.

Anyone wanting a summary of the previous books can refer to last year's review of book twelve, Deadlocked. Back? Good, because I hardly need to add anything to that review to cover the events of Dead Ever After. My complaints still stand, my predictions were accurate, and I'm trying not to regret the time I invested in this series over the last few years.

Even if I devoted another few years to the effort, I'm not sure I could wrap my head around what in God's name Harris was thinking. She's said somewhere -- I'm too lazy to find a link -- that this is the series ending she had in mind from the beginning. Okay, I get having a plan, because otherwise you end up with Lost*, but there's a reason so many authors bemoan their characters doing things they didn't intend. It sounds silly, but it's actually true: once you've developed a character well, he takes on a life of his own, and if you're writing a story with any kind of skill you'll know when you're trying to force a character into doing something that just doesn't make sense for that person. At that point, you either have to force it -- which ruins characters, kills puppies, and leaves the reader boggling in confusion and disgust -- or you have to revise your original plan.

Charlaine Harris chose to force it with this book, and that was a big, big mistake. If her plan from the beginning was to have Sookie end up with her dull friend Sam, why did Harris give so much page-time to much more charismatic love interests? Why bother with thirteen books? There was never any sexual chemistry between Sookie and Sam, and even their friendship -- yes, this book is up to the hilt in ye olde "I never realized I was in love with my best friend" trope** -- didn't seem all that exciting.

Since there weren't really any reasons for Sookie to go for Sam, the only way to get to this pointless, non sequitur ending was to give her reasons not to go for anyone else. To achieve this, Harris took the remains of the Eric character, whom she assassinated in the previous two books, and jumped on them a few times prior to setting them on fire.

In a plot contrivance that seems to tacitly acknowledge what nearly every reader could have told her, Harris uses a lame, deus ex machina "magic made us more attracted to each other" justification based on the fact that Sookie saved Sam's life with a fairy MacGuffin at the end of the last book. It, like, connected them, or something. 'Kay. There was no reason for Sookie and Sam to fall in love, so Harris was compelled to invent one that doesn't make very much sense.

Let's break this down. Harris either made a bad plan and stuck with it out of sheer cussedness (knowing full well that at least 90% of her readers wanted Sookie and Eric to have a happily ever after), or she made a good plan and then executed it with stunning incompetence.

Either way, this book is a pathetic and disappointing ending to what was, up until book ten or so, a solidly re-readable series. I can't even enjoy the earlier books now, so off they go to Goodwill with Dead Ever After. Two stars.

* And I don't care what the show's final resolution was, the only thing that could explain the entire "plot" is time-traveling body-snatcher government agent shapeshifting polar bears from outer space -- as the writers.

** Only, sadly, here it's more of an anemic, fizzling "I never realized I was kind of sort of okay with the idea of dating my best friend, since he's the only romantic option left in my small town."

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Rifter

Author: Ginn Hale
Genre: Fantasy/Gay
Original Pub. Date: 2011

It's rare that anything surprises me in a book. Even the foulest depths of almost incomprehensible human depravity, e.g. Nights in Rodanthe, leave me shrugging in utter belief. Now and again, though, an author pulls it off, and this week that author is Ginn Hale, who did something with her serialized novel The Rifter* that I haven't seen in a while: she had an original goddamn idea. Strike that. She had several, and I'm still reeling and popping nitroglycerin pills.

I was considering writing this review as a Literary Showdown versus my last victim (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms), but that seemed a little unfair; The Rifter is so much better than the other that it would be like putting a sedated long-eared bunny rabbit in the ring with Mike Tyson. There are some thematic similarities that make the comparison worthwhile, though.

Both The Hundred Thousand Political Action Messages and The Rifter use the same mythological underpinnings: the physical creation of the world out of the actual substance of gods. In the former, the gods accomplish this by having sex with their siblings in various grotesque ways; in The Rifter, it's more of a classic "the god lay down and his flesh became the world" sort of scenario.** (Three guesses which I find more appealing.) It's not entirely clear whether our world (present-day Earth) and the world in which The Rifter takes place are made from the same god-stuff, but they are definitely connected by a sort of dimensional gate (my lame term, not Hale's). The gate opens using a key made from a bone of the last holy Rifter, a religious figure in the other world who's basically a sentient amputated limb of the living flesh of the world-god.

The religious order of this other world periodically designates a new Rifter, who is then pulled from our world and used as a threat to hold over everyone else to maintain the religion's power; the Rifter is capable of completely destroying the world, and in fact that is his primary function as the destructive incarnation of the god. Once the Rifter does his (or sometimes her) thing, he dies and one of his bones becomes the next powerful relic. The really fun part is that the destruction of part of the world and the destruction of the Rifter aren't cause and effect the way you'd think. The Rifter is physically a limb of the living world, and exploding a person's foot, to translate the idea, would cause shock, blood loss, gangrene, and a whole lot of other problems in addition to the trauma.

The novel focuses on John, the designated Rifter-in-reserve. When the story opens in our world, he's a normal guy with a weird tattooed roommate who's actually the Kahlil, an other-world sorcerer-monk assigned to keep an eye on him and bring him home to rip the world apart when/if necessary, and to kill him if not. John and two of his friends accidentally go through the gate and land in crazy-world, nearly dying in the process in about ten different ways. Fun catch to this this type of travel: somewhat like the doorways to Narnia, this gate opens anytime it damn pleases within the lifetimes of the current Rifter and Kahlil. John arrives about ten years before Kahlil becomes John's roommate in the first place; Kahlil follows, but he gets tossed forward another twenty years or so, without his memories or tattoos and with one hell of a headache.

With a solid skill that makes me think she used to be a Stargate script writer***, Hale manages to knit these unraveled timelines together, switching back and forth between times and character viewpoints in a way that ought to have that hack George R.R. Martin twitching with envy. John meets Kahlil's younger self, setting the latter's timeline awry; Kahlil eventually catches up with John's much older self, figuring out what happened and didn't happen to him in the meantime. Their mission: save the world and each other.

It's gloriously pulpy. Anyone who claims to read science fiction and fantasy for the high-minded ideals and meticulously plausible scientific concepts is just the sort of asshole who says he's going to a strip club for the beer selection.**** We all go for the naked girls, okay? Just like everyone who really appreciates fantasy does so for the sword fights, weird magic, and climactic villain destruction.

The Rifter has all of those, and the weird magic is truly the star. There's magical travel that appears to happen in the complete nothingness between subatomic particles (complete with an interesting reference to moving with and not against the forces holding matter together), bone and blood sorcery that binds life into etched skeletons, and quite a bit more that kept me fascinated throughout.

But what really blew me away was that I have -- ladies and gentleman, brace yourselves
-- never read a work of fiction that uses the world-as-flesh idea quite the way The Rifter does. To make sure I wasn't missing anything, I consulted the best-read expert I know (Hi, Mom!! nice chatting with you) and she hadn't ever read anything like this either outside of mythology.

I'm going to be giving this book a high star rating in a moment, but what would an Indiscriminate Reader review be without the bad news? The names in the other world are cheesy, and they even have some apostrophes. That drove me nuts. For the first three quarters of the story, the timeline-switching kept the suspense high; each move from place to place offered a few more hints about what was really going on in the other, and it was done very skilfully. On the other hand, by the time the last couple of switches happened it had really all been cleared up, and then the pacing started to drag. Since I'm listing all my small quibbles at once, might as well add that I don't like this author's habit of using characters' names when a pronoun or two would unclutter the text in a big way.

Last but not least, let's get one big elephant out of the room. Astute readers may have noticed that the genre in this one's heading isn't just fantasy. It's gay fantasy, specifically published and marketed as such by Blind Eye Books, a small independent press with a distinct niche. Regular readers may remember my review of Lynn Flewelling's The White Road, a fantasy sequel that features gay protagonists, as Blind Eye's books do: protagonists so gay that their sheer gayness overwhelmed anything else that the Nightrunner series had to offer. As the series progressed past the first two very decent books, the characters' sexual orientation began to feel like more and more of a gimmick designed to compensate for the relative blandness and unoriginality of the series overall.

If gay characters are not for you, then they're not. It's not a problem for me; what is are characters who are primarily defined by their sexuality, as I've ranted about before. It cracks me up that The Rifter, a book specifically marketed using and nominally defined by the characters' sexuality, actually contains far less emphasis on the protagonists' orientation and far more extensive character development than either the Nightrunner series or the latest bestselling "literary" fantasy I read.*****

Frankly, I doubt Hale would have a chance in hell at getting her fantasy published by Tor or Baen or even Orbit. This isn't because her characters are too gay for a regular publisher; Spectra (part of Bantam Dell/Random House/evil empire/etc.) published The White Road. It's because Hale's books don't have anyone getting raped by a whip-wielding dragon angel CIA agent with nine mouths and a hot demon sister, or any of the other current horrific trends in what passes for mainstream fantasy, that's why. And good on her.

I have to give this book two ratings: three and a half stars overall, but a clean five in what passes for its genre these days.

* The series, now releasing in a four-part paperback edition, started as a ten-part e-book serial: The Shattered Gates, Servant of the Crossed Arrows, Black Blades, Witches' Blood, The Holy Road, Broken Fortress, Enemies and Shadows, The Silent City, The Iron Temple, and His Holy Bones.

** Granted, many mythologies include gods having vigorous and incestuous sex. Fair enough; does that mean we all want to read about it in detail? Not necessarily.

*** Go watch the SG-1 season eight two-parter finale and tell me I'm wrong if you can.

**** This is always, without exception, the same dude whose favorite Star Trek character is Geordi La Forge.

***** To be fair, this book is a rare exception; many other gay fantasies are gay erotica with swords as an excuse. To be more fair, many straight romance novels (historicals and fantasy) are straight erotica with swords as an excuse. No matter what body parts go where, those books are almost always a waste of time. Reviews to come!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

World War Z

Author: Max Brooks
Genre: Science Fiction
Original Pub. Date: 2006

Zombies lend themselves so well to film that it's not surprising books aren't their most frequent medium. Given that we're all used to the excitement of low moaning, splashes of gore, and piles of corpses on a big screen, then, it's pretty impressive how well Brooks managed to pull off zombie horror on the page.

The book is done documentary-style in a series of interviews with survivors of the titular apocalypse, in which most of the world's population died after being infected with a mysterious plague that caused typical zombie-like symptoms: living death, an insatiable urge to devour living flesh, American Idol-watching, and horrible moaning. Interviewees include the doctor who was called to tend Patient Zero (in China, naturally), the vice president of the U.S. during part of the ten-year zombie war, the South African mastermind behind the leave-some-civilians-as-bait plan that ultimately saved the world, various military personnel, and a few garden-variety survivors.

World War Z is cleverly written in that each of the interviews tie together, with little bits of information revealed in one interview casting light on tidbits from the last, and various survivors' stories intersecting just enough to be interesting without being too clever. The writing's solid. Suspense is maintained, even though the story's told from a post-war perspective -- no small feat, that. The pacing is good.

This is the point at which, were I some high-falutin' critical reviewer, I might maunder on about whether cannibalism and cold-blooded survival rate calculations render survivors as inhuman as their shambling predators, or about the first world's preparedness for a more realistic pandemic bursting out of China any day now, or about varying political philosophies and their application to a truly dire worldwide emergency. What is it to be human? I might ask. Or, does the possibility of zombies argue for or against the existence of the soul?

Who the hell am I kidding? This book has large-scale military engagements and creepy abandoned cities full of flesh-eating horrors and half-rotted slimy moaning things oozing out of the surf and swamping Indian cargo-ship death-boats by the thousands. I didn't read this for the philosophy, and neither should you.

Four stars -- zombies kick ass.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

Author: N.K. Jemisin
Genre: Fantasy
Original Pub. Date: 2010

One of these days I'm finally going to finish and publish my fantasy magnum opus, and then I'll get my proper karmic punishment from Goodreads as a thousand bitchy frustrated authors come out of the woodwork to sneer.

But that day hasn't come, and so thanks to my own laziness I don't need to fear immediate reprisal as I say: this book was stupid, so incredibly stupid that I wonder how the author got out of protective custody/padded wrapping/a nursery school long enough to write it, and so stupid that I'm certain I'm stupider for having read it.

It's so dumb that I'm having trouble even breaking down the nitwittery into discrete chunks for review-quality digestion.* Shall I start with the fact that this book, like Kushiel's Dart and so many others in recent years, hinges a significant portion of the plot on deviant sex, mystical sex, and/or poorly written sex? I guess that's better than no sex at all, particularly when the books in question claim to be fantasy romance, like the unbearably tedious and neutered Chronicles of Elantra and its unbearably tedious and neutered protagonists. On the other hand, when the deep connection between the lovers is predicated not on actual character development but on the fact that one of them is able to have ten or twenty mystical god-mouths on different human parts all at once, my gag reflex kicks in and my literary interest abruptly switches off.

Or, we could start with the muddled political allegories. I think the author thinks that slavery is really mean and bad and that white imperialists don't, like, treat all cultures as equal and stuff, but I could be wrong about that. It was done so subtly.

I also had some issues with the author's apparent belief that noble, dark-skinned people who are forced to live among slave-owning white imperialists don't use contractions. At least she put all the apostrophes in the right place when she did use them, unlike some people.

Or maybe I should go right for the jugular: what makes contemporary fantasy authors think that vague, meaningless pseudo-spiritual garbage equals elevated style? It could be because so many critics with dollar signs in their eyes have pushed that agenda on a guileless public, wide-eyed lambs sent trustingly to a slaughterhouse of half-finished sentences, italics, and vague hints at deep meaning that never coalesce.

On the other hand, it could simply be that the contemporary fantasy authors in question are fucking stupid. In this case, I'm going with column B.

The book starts as Yeine Darr, the granddaughter of the white imperialist slave-owning king of the world**, is summoned from her little backwater kingdom to the seat of power, the city of Sky. The rulers of Sky keep their stranglehold on the rest of the world by using the power of gods who have been subjugated and forced to their wills. One of the gods, Itempas, is nominally in charge; the gods whose power is bent to the ends of the Sky rulers are his various family members (godly incest is a big theme here, natch, since what would pseudo-spirituality be without a healthy dose of deviant god-sex?).

Though much of Yeine's energy goes into avoiding contractions and indulging in far too many passages of unfinished, and in some cases seemingly unedited, italic reminiscences, she still manages to engage in some obscurely written multiple-mouthed god-sex with light-god Itempas's brother, the god of night, fend off the sexual advances of a playful child-god whom others in Sky have raped and abused, and have a one night stand with one of her cousins.

Even though it stretches my powers of analysis to attempt to comment on the above, I feel compelled to note that I think -- not sure here, but going for it anyway -- that it's ironic that the god of light is the source of evil, that the beautiful city of Sky, placed above the rest of the world, is beneath it in morality, and that the hated god of destruction and darkness is actually more capable of love and honor than those who set themselves up as authorities on religion and social order. It was also shocking when I saw that sometimes highly placed, wealthy people are capable of decadence and pedophilia; I was then led to the astonishing realization that material wealth and political power, when wielded by light-skinned imperialists, inevitably lead to pedophilia and rape! Thank all the many-mouthed sex gods for my new-found enlightenment. Without N.K. Jemison, I might have spent the rest of my life believing (thanks for nothing, patriarchal oppression!) that all races, income levels, and occupations contain people with a variety of character traits and personal habits.

Once properly indoctrinated, I was ready to be enthralled by the remainder of the book's finely tuned plot. After getting through all the gross sex needed to sell the book to the target demographic properly express the author's complex ideas, Yeine unravels the mystery of why Itempas set up Sky in the first place, and why she was summoned to the city in order to participate in its governance.

In the end, she frees the enslaved gods, becomes a god, and takes off into the ether to have incestuous god-sex, surely the highest end to which anyone could aspire. Me, I just want a cup of coffee and a good book, no incestuous pseudo-S/M god-sex required, but thanks to N.K. Jemisin, that dream is now just a heap of ashes and unnecessary italicized adverbs.

Avoid this overblown, pretentious, preachy, dull, over-written nonsense at all costs, unless your medical insurance covers blunt-force metaphor trauma.

One and a half stars.

* And I'm also a little hampered by the fact that I moved 1500 miles in between reading this book/starting the review and now, when I'm going to post it. I don't have the book in front of me, and so I can't quote from it -- bummer for me, but Christmas came early for you.

** Do you think he might be one of the villains? Hmmmm . . .

Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Reality TV Lexicon

Some of you may not know that I am an enthusiastic, nay, even avid, consumer of a careful selection of reality TV shows. Each week, I watch Project Runway (in all of its variations), Top Chef, and -- never have I been happier to write under a pseudonym -- The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

Since you, my gentle readers, are all in fact readers, I'm guessing few of you ever watch reality television in all its bleeped-out, hair-pulling glory, but it has a lot to offer the student of sociology or someone who simply finds stupid people funny. It's also well-nigh incomprehensible to the casual viewer.

To help those of my readers who'd like to occasionally climb down from the lofty heights of criticism and mingle with the media hoi polloi, I've compiled a partial lexicon of the most commonly misused and abused words in reality TV, hoping that you can benefit from my hard-won experience.

ignorant
actual meaning: lacking in knowledge; unlearned
meaning on TV: holding a different opinion from the person who hurls this epithet; unsympathetic
usage: "She thinks it's wrong that I had sex with her boyfriend and stole her clothes? She's just ignorant."
explanation: This word is a shortcut for "You don't like me for some perfectly rational reason related to my own behavior or character. As I'm incapable of backing up my point of view in a reasonable, logical manner, and am in fact ignorant myself of the rules of debate and grammar, I am going to pretend that you just aren't aware of some salient fact and that I am obviously in the right, thus fallaciously implying that there is only one right-thinking way to approach this matter." For further examples of usage, please see any mainstream media outlet (cf. bigoted).

emotional
actual meaning: experiencing human feeling; not being a robot
meaning on TV: upset
usage: "My mom would be so proud of me for finishing second to last in the competition, because she spent her whole life dreaming of a better life for me while she crawled uphill both ways to her job in the cyanide factory in Cuba. I'm so emotional right now."
explanation: We can only assume that these people experience only one emotion. Subtext: the person experiencing emotion is clearly more sensitive than other people, and therefore superior.

myself
actual meaning: reflexive first-person pronoun
meaning on TV: any first-person pronoun
usage: "We went to the strip club to audition, but that ignorant [bleep] didn't hire Bambi or myself. I'm so emotional right now."
explanation: As myself has two syllables, and thus contains one more than the majority of words known by the typical reality-TV speaker, it functions as the linguistic equivalent of drinking Alizé because it has a French-sounding name. The insertion of myself into a sentence nicely distinguishes the user from the low-class types who prefer to use the common I, or even worse, the utterly pedestrian me. This tactic works just about as well as every other self-announcement of high social status does (cf. bling).

unique
actual meaning: the only, sole example
meaning on TV: high-class; expensive
usage: "I'm a very unique person, and that's why I drink Alizé. Anyone who thinks that makes myself a whore is just ignorant."
explanation: Ignorance. In general, the word unique will be prefaced with a varying number of verys. If something is high-class enough to be unique, then that quality will be communicated far more clearly by calling it very, very unique.

drama
actual meaning: a vivid or striking series of events; literature meant to be produced on stage
meaning on TV: fighting over a man who's sleeping, or suspected of sleeping, with at least two women
usage: "I told that ignorant [bleep] not to start any drama with myself and stay away from my husband! I'm sorry, I can't talk about this any more. I'm so emotional right now."
explanation: As Sophocles, perhaps one of history's greatest dramatists, once said: "Only an ignorant whore believes that a man who has once cheated will remain faithful in the future. Oh great Zeus, I'm so emotional right now."

Monday, January 14, 2013

Monday Classic: Mansfield Park

Author: Jane Austen
Genre: General Fiction
Original Pub. Date: 1814

In one of the more twee passages (and that's saying a lot) from one of the many Anne of Green Gables books, I recall Anne maundering on about how different books made her want to eat foods that seemed to match the content. Since this stuck with me, I guess I have to admit I agree; bread and cheese with Robert Louis Stevenson books, wine and cake with The Hobbit, maybe sushi with Moby-Dick?

Since whatever food goes with Saturday's Kushiel's Dart would probably taste like the back room of an adult bookstore smells, I'm going to get those images out of my head and cleanse my literary palate with a piece of chocolate, a nice fresh cup of hot tea, and some bitching about my least favorite Jane Austen novel: Mansfield Park.

For whatever reason, Sense and Sensibility (my second least favorite*) gets read quite a bit in universities. I think it's because S & S is possibly the drabbest of Austen's books, and academics don't feel like they're doing their jobs if they write criticism of books it's possible they, or anyone else, might enjoy.** Hence, we have extensive criticism of The Great Gatsby, but not so much of, say, P.G. Wodehouse's Carry On, Jeevesboth of which were published in 1925 and feature upper-class characters who drink too much involved in awkward romantic entanglements.

Mansfield Park, on the other hand, inhabits a miserable literary no man's land: it's both slightly too lively for most English professors to want to teach and far too dull for most people to want to read. I have no proof of this, but I'm betting it's the least-known of any of Austen's six major works as a result.

For any readers who have not read this book and are actually going to read my rant about it anyway, here's a quick summary from Wikipedia, because I see no reason to write it all over again myself.

And now we can summarize the summary. Henry Crawford, a rich, handsome, charming, funny, intelligent young man, is in love with Fanny, our dull heroine, and wants to marry her. She refuses him. Why? She doubts his morality, because he flirted with both of her girl cousins, one of whom was engaged. How very shocking! Let us all take a moment to imagine what an unattached young man who thinks himself too good to flirt with a pretty girl would be like. Hopefully, anyone with some slight grasp of normal human nature has pictured an unbearably self-righteous bore who probably hero-worships Fanny Burney's douchey Edgar Mandlebert.

That bore? Personified by the hero of Mansfield Park, Fanny's cousin Edmund, who's in love with Henry's sister Mary throughout most of the book. I realize attraction isn't, by its nature, logical. But really, by the middle of Mansfield Park, I lost all patience with Fanny. What could be less appealing than a guy who's always going on and on about some other woman's beauty? A guy who moans all the time about how that beautiful woman isn't good enough for him, that's what. And yet Fanny continues to mope around, longing for Edmund, despite his sullen, entitled Madonna/whore obsession with another girl.

In the end, Fanny finally convinces Henry to leave her alone, much to the disgust of her relatives, who think she's completely insane. (At this point, I was right there with them.) Henry, in a fit of pique, toddles off to London and runs away with Fanny's now-married cousin Maria. Any hopes I had that Fanny would come around and marry him were now dashed; even I, whose morality would make Fanny faint dead away, wouldn't want a novel's heroine to marry her bitchy cousin's ex-lover. For a moment, the reader is left to think that perhaps Fanny will end her days a sad spinster.

But no! What luck! Mary fails to utterly condemn her brother as a useless, worthless, demonic sub-human who deserves to die. Edmund, sent into hysterics by her semi-realistic view of the world, flees home to whine, yet again, to poor long-suffering Fanny (that idiot) about how miserable he is, now that the beautiful girl he loves is proven to be even less worthy of his perfect, perfect self.

I know what Austen was trying to do with the end of Mansfield Park. The idea, of course, is that Edmund realizes that the perfect girl was right there all along; he sees that his love for Fanny is pure and true; his parents finally understand that virtue in a cottage is so much more valuable than a worldly marriage for money, passion, excitement, good conversation, and other horridly vulgar things; and everyone lives happily ever after.

Here's what I saw happen at the end of Mansfield Park: Edmund realizes that he's too boring and uptight to attract a really desirable woman. He sees that Fanny's love for him is pure and true, and that if he marries her, he'll have someone fussing over his meals and selflessly mending his shirts until she goes blind for the rest of his life. His parents understand that if they want to have two people with nothing better to do than run their errands for the rest of their lives, sticking their sanctimonious son and his goody two-shoes wife in a vicarage down the road will work out really well. Everyone lives happily ever after.

This book just makes me so spitting mad every time I read it. It still gets three and a half stars, because it's a good novel in many ways, but the better Austens would each get five.

* Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey (yes, Mom, I know Emma is technically better than both of my first picks), Emma, Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park.

** This also applies to high school reading lists, as I've discussed previously.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Kushiel's Dart

Author: Jacqueline Carey
Genre: Fantasy/Erotica
Original Pub. Date: 2001

Today's bad fantasy fun comes straight from the smallest box of books in my house: the reject box headed for resale. Kushiel's Dart is a 901-page* excuse for a generally unimaginative series of S&M sex scenes, scattered throughout far, far too many words purporting to comprise a complex spy thriller/royal court plot. To put it more simply: you get ten pages of people getting tied up naked for every hundred pages of dull, melodramatic misunderstanding of Renaissance politics.

And all those hundreds of pages, let me hasten to emphasize, really only exist so that Kushiel's Dart and its many overwrought sequels can be shelved under science fiction/fantasy rather than erotica.

The heroine of these books is a high-class prostitute in a country (loosely based on France, if France were an even wussier place than it really is -- do try to imagine that if you possibly can) whose entire ethos comes from the fatuous pronouncement of a legendary angel: "Love as thou wilt." Wow, man, like, that's so deep, let's all just come together, shall we? Literally or figuratively, your choice.

If that's not already enough to make you vomit, this same heroine is also perfectly beautiful and lovable and delicate, yet strong yet honorable yet fragile, and yet, because of a magical curse/blessing that causes a little red dot in the white of her eye, she can also only really enjoy sex when she's playing the submissive to someone's violent dom. That's about it as far as character development goes: Disney princess meets Vivid Video up-and-comer. So to speak.

Because of some stuff that really doesn't matter involving a queen and some spies -- or something -- our virtuous yet vixenish femme fatale finds herself at the mercy of an aristocrat who's a devotee of the patron angel of sadistic sex (this fantasy world just gets more and more appealing, doesn't it?). She also picks up with several other lovers, at least two of them messed-up young men who actually, sexy angels help them, fall in love with her. Then there's her capture by a barbarian obsessed with a sword-and-sorcery version of Cosmopolitan's Book of Awesome Sex Positions, which really adds the dash of sophistication Kushiel's Dart was missing.

Much as I try to resist sinking into a quagmire of feminist academic criticism, this is one occasion on which, sexy angels now please help us all, it's almost impossible. Here we have a female protagonist whose entire worth  to society and to her friends is predicated on her inability not to orgasm when she's raped, humiliated, and degraded. It's not her fault, please keep in mind! This was ordained by a sexy angel of masochism, and so of course she's going to enjoy it.

And because this is just the way she is, she's excused from having any moral agency. The guy who's willing to fight to the death for her, whom she claims to love in return . . . weeeeel, you know, she may have cheated on him with eight guys with whips. But that's fine, you see, because she's just a stupid woman chosen by a sexy angel, which means she doesn't actually have any free will outside of her hormones.

Sadly, I think the author was probably trying to make a point about sexual liberation, and how women can be worthy of love without being virginal and/or prudish. I agree. They can. However, that point of view depends on women having a choice about they way they express their sexuality, or don't. According to what I think Carey believes about the world, the patriarchy has historically taken away women's sexual agency and made them pawns in men's sexual games. Now, in this much-improved fantasy world, angels take away women's sexual agency so that they can be used as pawns in men's sexual games. Oh. Okay. Despite the bondage trappings, Kushiel's Dart has the same general ethos as a Harlequin Presents novel circa 1975.**

On top of this old-school romance-novel view of women's value, Carey has added an entirely contemporary problem: defining everyone, male or female, primarily by their sexuality. The heroine of Kushiel's Dart is a submissive royalist courtesan; her favorite boyfriend is sworn to celibacy, and also good with knives. The main villain is a dominatrix who's plotting to take over the world. And so on. The first, and in many cases the only, traits of the characters in this book are sexual. You have certainly, dear readers, met people who define themselves as "bisexual progressives" or "gay Republicans" or "lesbian Hispanic-Americans." In addition to being a cocktail-party bore of the first water, anyone whose first personal descriptor involves something he likes to do in bed is a tedious protagonist.

The result is a book so shallow, so lacking in any interest beyond the prurient, that it really ought to be shelved next to the works of the Marquis de Sade. His books, while equally dull, contain just slightly more rape.

Although it's really redundant, Kushiel's Dart has one more glaring weakness. Unlike the good Marquis, Carey uses a mismatched mish-mash of Christian, Jewish, and mythological linguistic references in an attempt to apply a patina of moral and literary legitimacy to the whole mess. The only "character development" that takes place does so through sex; the celibate fellow becomes less celibate, for example. And the author seems to be trying to convince the reader that having lots and lots of deviant sex with lots of people is actually an expression of these characters' spirituality, such as it is. Angels made them do it, if you know what I mean, which makes the doing of it somehow meaningful.

If an angel made a tree fall in the forest and kill a French prostitute, after which the tree was chopped up into pulp and made into a Jacqueline Carey novel, would that make the death of the tree a martyrdom? Ponder that at length, if you please, while I give this book a well-deserved one and a half stars and then fling it back into the discard box.

* In this paperback edition.

** If anyone would like further explication of this point, an email to me will elicit the full text of my college thesis, "Rereading the Romance: Masculinity in Transition." I strongly advise against sending such an email.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

No Reviews Here

I've realized, since starting this blog, that there's no way I'll ever review all the books I read. Even the Two-Haiku Reviews can only get me so far through the backlog. What are the chances, for example, that I will ever review Rosamond Marshall's 1946 erotic romp Duchess Hotspur, which features decorated pubic hair, a lusty newspaper man, and an array of charmingly Cockneyesque servants, all mingling in (as I recall) 18th century London? Or some of my beloved Rafael Sabatini's lesser-known works, such as the massively underrated Dumas rip-off Saint Martin's Summer? Or any one of the many Harlequin Presents romance novels I used to write my college thesis, like The Italian's Rags-to-Riches Wife, or Possessed by the Sheik?

In the spirit of Christmas, then, since I don't have my bulging bookshelves on hand (holiday travel, folks, sorry), and to help me give you the gift that keeps on giving -- angry reviews of crappy books no one can understand why I would read in the first place -- I present you with a short list of recommendations. I may or may not ever trouble to review these books, and some of you (Hi, Mom!!) almost never like the books I recommend in the first place. This, then, is for the other two of you.

Hopefully, the list includes a few obscure enough books to offer something new for everyone. I've placed asterisks and the occasional 1/2 star by each title; they represent the rough star rating I'd give to each. I haven't reviewed any of these, and they're presented in no particular order within the categories.

Fantasy:

Lyonesse, The Green Pearl, and Madouc, by Jack Vance *****

The Temeraire series, by Naomi Novik *** (This is particularly for Mr. Fan; I think Mrs. Fan might also enjoy having parts of this series read aloud over coffee. She'll like the dragons.)

The Briar King (and its three sequels), by Greg Keyes ***

Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon ***1/2 (This could also go under romance or historical fiction; just a warning for any readers who may fear girl-cooties.)

Five Children and It, by E. Nesbit ****

The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch ***1/2 (WARNING: this is a series, and there is no guarantee it will ever be finished. There are only two books so far. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.)

Science Fiction:

The Demon Princes (five books in one collection), by Jack Vance *****

The Purple Cloud, by M.P. Shiel ****

The Caves of Steel (and its sequels, The Naked Sun and The Robots of Dawn), by Isaac Asimov ***1/2

The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick ****

Historical Fiction (this includes Romance):

My Dearest Enemy, by Connie Brockway *** (more on the romance side)

Scaramouche and Scaramouche the Kingmaker, by Rafael Sabatini ***** (more on the kick-ass side)

The Adventures of Brigadier Gerard (there are various collections of these stories under different names), by Arthur Conan Doyle *****

Faro's Daughter, by Georgette Heyer ***1/2 (Regency romance)

The Black Arrow, by Robert Louis Stevenson ****1/2

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (and its many sequels), by C.S. Forester ***** (Do not, under any circumstances whatever, including a gun to your head, a promise of instant relief from crippling heartburn, or simple insanity, pick up Patrick O'Brien's knockoff series beginning with the hideously overrated Master and Commander instead. Just don't. Unless you like suspiciously frequent and unveiled references to buggery embedded in what those of us who read crappy genre fiction like to call workmanlike prose, that is, in which case, carry on. Look for a Literary Showdown post about this one of these days.)

General Fiction:

The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield ***

The Virginian, by Owen Wister ****

The Petty Demon, by Fyodor Sologub ****

The Charioteer, by Mary Renault ****1/2

Happy reading! And to entertain you while Amazon processes your credit card or Project Gutenberg supplies you with a free download, here's a Devo video. I can't so much as think about Asimov's The Caves of Steel without getting this stuck in my head for two days. Now you can too. You're welcome!