Andrea Phillips: The Daring Adventures of Captain Lucy Smokeheart (so far)

I wouldn’t normally write about a novel that’s half-complete, but I just tore through the available chapters of this serial novel-in-progress like a bag of movie popcorn, and this seems like a great jumping-on-point. I think the overall title does a fantastic job of setting expectations: Smokeheart sails in waters that remind me of Errol Flynn at his swashbucklingest (Captain Blood?), the abundant magic and gleeful camp of The Princess Bride (film version) with maybe a dash of Gideon Defoe’s pomo piratical zaniness.

There’s a real world treasure quest that parallels Smokeheart’s quest, which I’m not into, but which dictates that the chapters each more-or-less have to deliver a clue to the real-world treasure hunters (and hence to Smokeheart). So there’s a bit of repetition to the structure of the chapters, and anyone really allergic to puzzles might want to salt my recommendation. But with that very minor caveat, I’m finding this really delightful so far.

Mur Lafferty: The Shambling Guide to New York City

The Shambling Guide to New York City is an urban fantasy that starts out with an intriguing exploration into how the human world might interact with a Buffy-esque any-myth-system-is-fair-game secret supernatural world. I was aware that the major plot arc doesn’t really get cranking for quite a few chapters, but I didn’t mind, because Lafferty’s world-building had me completely entranced. Once it gets cranking, though, it goes everywhere at breakneck pace. Perhaps the thing that impresses me most is how many tonal shifts the book incorporates while still managing to feel cohesive: it starts out in a light/comic vein, gets substantially darker and more intense, makes an unexpected detour into rather adult territory and culminates with a protracted gonzo, over-the-top magical battle. All this and likable and/or interesting characters, most of whom deviate at least a bit from the standard protag/sidekick/villain molds. I thought it was hoot and a half, and I’m impatient for more.

Chuck Wendig: Blackbirds, Mockingbird

The first time Miriam Black touches you, she can see how/when/where you’re going to die. (The death scenes delivered to the reader usually have an ironic or morbidly slapstick component, kinda like the pre-credit sequences of Six Feet Under; seems Miriam rarely touches people who slip away uneventfully.) When we meet Miriam she’s given up trying to change the deaths she sees (after unsuccessful and traumatic attempts to buck fate) and she’s eking out a sort of living by recording death times and places in a book, and showing up to pick the pockets of the extremely recently deceased. The first novel gets cracking when she touches a guy who, in his death scene, looks over the shoulder of the death coming for him, and says Miriam’s name. And despite herself, Miriam finds herself trying to change the future one more time.

Wendig is tough on his characters, protagonists and antagonists alike, in a way that reminded me of how Charlie Huston is tough on his characters. I knew that there were multiple novels featuring Miriam Black, but I didn’t know that they weren’t prequels, or even novels featuring a posthumous/undead/whatever version of the character. There was definitely plenty of how/will she get out of this suspense.

The Big Bad of the first novel eventually resolved into something a little less interesting than I was hoping for but it didn’t stop me from reading them back-to-back, and the Big Bad of the second book was more satisfying than I expected at first. Now I’m eagerly looking forward to the imminent publication of the third.

Anyone who’s read Wendig’s Twitter or blog will know to expect rampant, exuberant swearing, and there’s also gore by the bucketful. But I wouldn’t call these novels splatterpunk: the vibe is of dark fantasy more than horror, and crucially, although Miriam is pretty nihilistic the novels themselves aren’t.

Mary Jo Pehl: Employee of the Month and Other Big Deals

This book was recommended to me as really uproarious, which I thought oversold it; It was a one-guffaw read for me. It’s a series of pseudo-autobiographical essays, recounted with some verve, but with not a lot to distinguish them from other amusing pseudo-autobiographical essays about mildly dysfunctional upbringings and somewhat stressful employment and dating experiences. I didn’t remember where I know Pehl’s name from until relatively late in the book, when MST3K enters the picture: she played Dr. Pearl Forrester. The skits were never my favorite part of MST3K (I’ve always suspected that they were present as much to bolster MST3K’s ability to use fair use as a defense against copyright infringement as for their intrinsic merit). If I’d made the MST3K connection upfront my expectations might have been exceeded — but then, I might have been disappointed that the show plays such a small role.

Sarah Rees Breenan: The Demon’s Covenant

This didn’t have a surprise to compare with the plot twist in The Demon’s Lexicon, but I thought it was much stronger overall: more satisfying character development, better prose, a plot that’s less reliant on coincidence. Brennan is particularly adept at depicting the emotional messiness of adolescence and burgeoning sexual awareness.

Rachel Lynn Brody (ed.): Hot Mess – Speculative Fiction About Climate Change

The handful of stories in Brody’s collection clearly have an agenda of raising consciousness of and concern about the implications of climate change. Socially or politically motivated art is tricky: it can succeed in communicating its objectives without necessarily exhibiting the general hallmarks of literary merit. In literary terms, I found Hot Mess a mixed bag. These stores don’t always succeed for me even at the propaganda level: a world in which exposure to the sun literally brings instant death is so exaggerated that it almost seems to undercut the urgency of dealing with the real-world problem. The stories that worked best for me generally had a much narrower focus. Eric Sipple’s “She Says Goodbye Tomorrow” looks specifically at what climate change could mean for wine growers, and uses that as a lens to look at the difficulties of nurturing romantic relationships. Although I found its chronology a bit confusing, I thought it was generally successful. RJ Astruc’s “The World Gets Smaller, and Things Get Left Behind,” ponders the fate of Venice’s canals and art; it’s a bit heavy-handed, but I thought it was effective. The editor’s own “Haute Mess” is short and pointed satire about the point at which climate change could threaten our ability to remain a high-tech culture, and her “Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom” examines a troubled child coping with repressed grief with the dubious aid of an artificial intelligence against a background of radical climate change. Both were among the strongest entries.

Robin Sloan: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Overall I really liked Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Precisely observed details of the sort of tech culture I’m well-qualified to comment on the realism of are juxtaposed with a surreal shadow conspiracy, a dash of derring-do, and a hefty, but not overbearing, dose of the metaphysical. The novel explicitly acknowledges the influence of the likes of Murakami by including their works in the titular store, which I thought was a very appropriate touch. The novel sets up a situation that I thought would be difficult to satisfactorily resolve — a sort of is it/isn’t it puzzle where either answer seemed fraught with the risk of cliché, but I thought Sloan really pulled it off.

I do have a few picayune quibbles with the representation of Google. I see several Google employees on a regular basis, enough to know that its portrayal of the company is in important respects less accurate than in the (pretty dreadful) Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson vehicle The Internship. Being “unGoogly” is one of the harshest criticisms Google employees level at one another, and taking food home from the free cafeterias, as one of Sloan’s characters does, is almost a canonical example of “unGoogliness.” It, and a few similarly off notes, really jarred me, although it’s probably of little importance to anyone who doesn’t work there or know people who do.

Also worth mentioning: even beyond the gimmicky but fun use of phosphorescent ink, the book jacket design of the hardcover edition is astoundingly appropriate.

S. S. Taylor: The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon

I wanted to love this book, and perhaps I didn’t because my expectations were too high. It’s published by an arm of McSweeney’s, and it features steampunk trappings, secret societies, cloak and dagger intrigue, a wide subversive streak, strong female characters, and subtle, but deliberate, I think, allusions to Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Becky, and the fantastic lost worlds of Verne, Burroughs, Doyle, et al — superficially, it sounds like it could have been tailor made for me. I did love Katherine Roy’s precise and evocative illustrations. Some of my dissatisfaction with the book probably accrues to middle grade targeting: I found the treatment of burgeoning romantic tensions decidedly hamfisted, for instance, but maybe it’s an appropriate amount of repetition for the intended audience. I also had suspension of disbelief issues with the world-building. But my biggest problem with it runs deeper: in the children’s books that I loved (and love) best — those by Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis and others — characters ultimately triumph over adversity because of who they fundamentally are. The Expeditioners relies too much for my taste on a school of overcoming obstacles that I also find unsatisfying in adventure games, a Chekhovian sort of problem solving: If a character finds a box with a button on it, there will be a situation requiring the button to be pressed.

Alexandra Potter: Me and Mr. Darcy

My parents, a scientist and a career academic, both have a fondness for Regency (i.e., historical and relatively chaste) romance novels that might seem at odds with their characters. If I remember right, on separate occasions, both described a fascination with the combinatorial aspect of the genre: all the allowed variations of the genre playing out in slightly different combinations, like the colored glass chips tumbling in an old-school kaleidoscope: always different, always the same. Perhaps then, genetics help explain my ongoing fascination for the micro-genre of recent works directly inspired by Jane Austen’s work.

Me and Mr. Darcy has a set up that’s more than a bit like Shannon Hale’s Austenland, not to mention Victoria Connelly’s A Weekend with Mr. Darcy, with 21st-century Austenites playing dress-up, but the tone is quite different. I decided not to belabor the kaleidoscope metaphor, but it’s lighter and less layered than Austenland, without the class consciousness that lends some heft to Hale’s book. But it’s considerably more serious (and a shade less formulaic) than Connelly’s novel. It explores the question of why arrogant, snobbish Darcy is such an enduring romantic icon to contemporary women. Until the dénouement, Potter does a pretty good job of leaving it to the reader to decide whether the apparently “fantastic” events are really happening, or if they’re unusually vivid dreams brought on by exhaustion, blows to the head, and the like. And likewise, until the big wrap up, I didn’t quite know if it was the sort of novel where the protagonist would wind up contentedly paired, contentedly not paired, or sadder/wiser/a little more grown-up. I knew which way I’d bet, but I wasn’t positive, and I could see them all being appropriate and to some degree satisfying resolutions. And perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay to this book is that after reading much of it on a westbound evening flight, it wasn’t until after I learned the answer to that question that I really started to wonder if my hotel shuttle was ever going to show up.

Karen Joy Fowler: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Several folks whose judgment I respect urged all and sundry to read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves without reading any of the jacket copy or other reviews. If the combined weight of multiple recommendations wasn’t enough to convince me, my previous experience with Fowler’s short fiction and The Jane Austen Book Club was. I’d suggest likewise: if you trust me, just read it. A heaping helpful of the lazy litcrit clich&eacutes;s are absolutely true: it made me laugh, it made me think, and if it didn’t make me completely bawl, it certainly gave my tear ducts more exercise than most books. It also made me angry (not at the novel itself, mind you), and it made me look quite a few things up — unfamiliar words, a relative rarity for me, as well as scientific research and related events where I wanted to satisfy curiosity about whether what was presented in the text was essentially factual (it all was).

I spend a fair bit of time thinking about spoilers, the purposes and techniques for withholding information from readers (or viewers), the value of surprise in plots, and other such things. (I still resent having my dramatic experience of the 5th season of The Sopranosand Philip Pullman’s The Shadow in the North badly compromised.) And in that context, it might be worth mentioning that the reason for waning to not learn in untimely fashion what the book jacket presumably spills (I read the e-book; no book jacket copy included) is virtually unique in my experience. The narrator specifically and deliberately neglects to inform her audience of a fact or two because the narrator wants her audience to form opinions about aspects of the situation without the hindrance of a set of preconceptions that might otherwise be in play. It’s really not about plot, but it is intimately tied to the novel’s thematic content, and if you can manage it to comply, I think you’ll be rewarded.