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The Secret Place by Tana French

The Secret PlaceEvery now and again, I get in the mood for a good detective story. I don’t read widely in the genre, so I usually sift through what’s currently popular and find something that sounds interesting. That’s how I came across Tana French. I read the first Dublin murder Squad book, In the Woods, and enjoyed it quite a bit, even thought the main character was a complete prat. Her writing is at times lovely and its great to find unexpected pleasures. In a detective book mood this week, I picked up French’s The Secret Place, the 5th book in her Dublin Murder Squad series. In many ways The Secret Place is better than In the Woods. In many other ways, The Secret Place felt like a guilty pleasure read. I have a secret love for movies and sometimes books nostalgic about childhood friendships that I rarely indulge. One of my favorite movies is Now and Then with Christina Ricci and Demi Moore. I grew up reading the Babysitters books, and I had a tight group of friends. Not quite as tight as the girls in The Secret Place, but we were a pack nonetheless.

My nostalgia kicked in the moment we meet Holly Mackey (a character in a previous Dublin Murder Squad book) getting ready to head off to boarding school with her 3 best friends. I could tell right away that this book was going to tap into that magic of friendship (I also watch My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic with my kids) with a good dose of creep and maybe terror; it is a murder mystery after all. And I wasn’t disappointed. Holly, Rebecca, Selena, and Julia are four very close-knit girls at a private, all-girl boarding school, St. Kilda’s, full of cliques and hormones and all that fun stuff I don’t miss about being a teenager. This story is partly their growth as friends, and partly straight detective story. French balances these two narratives nicely in alternating chapters. The detective story is set in the present and moves forward toward resolution, while the friendship story is told in the past and moves toward the beginning of the detective story.

Murder Detective Conway and cold-case Detective Stephen Moran team up when Holly Mackey brings Stephen a card that says in cut out words “I know who killed him,” in reference to a teenage boy found dead on the boarding school’s grounds over a year ago. What follows for Moran and Conway is a day-long journey through the tenuous and sometimes scary world of teenagers as they try to figure out who wrote the card and who killed Chris Harper, the boy found dead on St. Kilda’s grounds. Conway worked the case previously, but they never found the murderer, and Moran thinks solving it now is his shot at making the Murder Squad.

French is an acute observer of human relationships and follies, as she’s displayed in her other novels. Taking on the world of teenage female friendships and all the fraught emotional drama (and sometimes trauma) is a large venture. While her portrait of Conway and Moran is solid and believable, as well as the other adults in the novel, her portraits of some of the girls didn’t quite hit the mark. Her four misfits, Holly & Co. are fairly well rounded her mean girls come right off every stereotype about mean girls we already know. She does a good job of anatomizing the posturing and posing they do every moment they have an audience, but they are still as vapid and soulless as their stereotypes make them out to be.

This dynamic is the guilty-pleasure aspect of the book for me. It offers a window into something nostalgic from my past but also exciting and terrifying because the stakes are so high. It’s also slightly voyeuristic in its close following and understanding of the relationships of teenage girls. The kind of friendship the misfits have is powerful, dangerous, and wonderful all at the same time, just as in Now and Then. It’s also ephemeral, and watching its growth and dissolution is very intimate. That, for me, is one of the great strengths of French’s writing and of her stories. She gets so close to her characters and makes (most) of them feel so real that they stay with you long after you’ve finished the book. These protagonists were much more compelling for me than the characters of In The Woods, but her writing and sense of atmosphere is what drew me back to her. I’ve already picked up Faithful Place and I hope it will satisfy that detective craving just as well when it hits.

Mort(e) by Robert Repino

Mort(e) by Robert RepinoEver wonder what would happen if a millenia-old, sentient ant queen got fed up with humanity and released a hormone that gave sentience to all animals? I never have, but I’m sure glad Robert Repino did. In his debut novel Mort(e), after centuries of watching her people die at the hands of humanity, a sentient ant Queen unleashes a hormone into the world’s drinking supplies that gives sentience to animals, from house cats to deer in order to wipe humanity from the face of the planet. Giant killer ants help wage war on humanity, while house pets shoot their former masters. And this is just the first 25 pages.

A house cat formerly know as Sebastian, now called Mort(e) does what he has to to survive while searching for his friend, a dog named Sheba, who ran away as the war reached their town. Along the way he joins an elite military force known as the Red Sphinx and spends 8 years fighting in the war with no name against humanity. But Sheba is always in the back of his mind and he finally decides that he needs to find her, as impossible as that may be. He returns to his former master’s home and encounters a member of the human resistance while investigating a series of strange deaths though to be caused by the human-engineered virus known as EMSAH. With new hope that Sheba is alive somewhere, and a growing realization that all is not well in the ant Queen’s court, Mort(e) hurtles towards a destiny that will either end the war in peace or annihilate everyone.

Repino’s prose is spare and relatively matter-of-fact to match the grim realities of this post-apocalyptic world where humanity is on the brink of extinction and the animals who have taken over their domain are faced with the existential question of “how to live now?”. Mort(e) is closer to Watership Down in tone than Animal Farm as it’s less a political fable and more an exploration of what makes people human, but there is a direct nod to Animal Farm, by way of a sentient pig named Bonaparte, the only survivor of his farm and a member of the Red Sphinx. There’s also quite a bit of camp; scenes where giant killer ants snap people in half are highly reminiscent of horror B-movies of the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

In as much as the animals govern themselves (there’s a question there), they do not disintegrate into dictatorships with ruling species as one might expect, but rather they try to discover a way to live that is authentic for themselves, but too closely resembles the lives their former masters lived, complete with infrastructure, bureaucracy, cars, and cell phones. While most animals believe that they will be better than humans, Mort(e) sees how similar they already are. In the second half of the novel, the virus EMSAH and its origin takes center stage and the novel begins to veer off into moralistic territory. While EMSAH is a garbled anagram, it’s not for the word you might expect which is a shame, because that word and what it evokes would have offered far more interesting options for the narrative. It’s hard to fully critique the end of this novel without revealing too much, so I won’t. Suffice it to say I was disappointed.

On the whole, the premise of this book surprised me and kept me reading through the night to its ultimately unsatisfying conclusion. I really enjoyed the story, but I wished the book had done more and pushed harder against conventions. Still, I’m excited to see what Repino will do next.

Oh hey, it’s 2015….look at that.

As per usual with me, this post is a little late. 2015 is a new year, full of….the same things as last year: family, work, gaming, reading, etc. I do not make resolutions; the most I do is restart my Goodreads challenge widget. I hit 20 books last year, so I upped it to 25 for this year, and so far I’m off to an ok start. The first thing I did this year, in fact, was read a book. I had a nice long car ride to deal with the first week of January and took along Sergi Lukyaneko’s Nightwatch.  The series has a cultish following and a new installation, New Watch, coming soon. I found it interesting if unimpressive, but I am going to pick up Twilight Watch, the third book from the library today.

More interesting for me has been Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy. The books are mesmerizing in their own way, a way that may not appeal to all readers though such luminaries as James Woods have heaped praise on the novels. I’ve finished the third book, Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay, which continues the familial saga of Elena and Lina, who are in their 20s now, one on the cusp of success, the other on the cusp of a breakdown. The books fascinate me for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the way in which they are written. I want to dive into Ferrant’s writing book to figure out what works and why it works so well. I can’t wait for the rumored 4th book.

I have also started rereading a book I finished just a few months ago, Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror World. I felt like I may have sped through it too fast and missed things on the way. But it also bears coming back to: the characters are compelling, the plot is dense, the world enveloping. I want to go a little more slowly this time and dissect the book a bit to see how Hurley works her magic. I also want the second installment. Like, Now.


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And of course I have been hanging out in Eorzea quite a bit. I leveled all of the mage classes to current level cap, as well as a tank, which I swore I’d never play. We recently got a PS4 and the difference is quite amazing. It looks just beautiful and I can actually dodge things now. I still haven’t tried Titan EX to truly test the game’s performance, but that’s just because Titan scares the shit out of me. I’ve also got four 1- star crafters now and a 1-star gatherer. It seemed to take forever to get these classes anywhere, but once they hit 35ish and I actually put time into them they leveled super-fast. Part of that is because I finally figured out how to actually craft and used HQ items for all of my leve turn-ins. Knowing what you’re doing makes such a huge difference! *snicker*

I’ve also been watching some interesting TV while I wait anxiously for new seasons to start. I caught the Orphan Black craze in November and sped through the first two seasons. I might be more excited for that in April than the return of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Orphan Black feels fresh, current and exciting, while GoT is mired in the conventions of its genre and its book progenitor. That said, GoT is still the best fantasy show on TV right now and I will watch it all with relish. Orphan Black blew me away with its characters, the abilities of its actors, its continually surprising plots (that moment in the car with Danny?!). I love all the clones, but Helena has to be my favorite with Cosima as a close second. Felix, however, takes the cake. He is one of the best supporting characters I’ve seen on TV in quite a while. I’m also about halfway through Broadchurch, which is satisfying my need for dark, moody mysteries that don’t have neat tidy plots or endings. I love the British for that. And for letting David Tennant keep his Scottish accent in the show.

Speaking of dark British TV shows, I just finished Black Mirror and “holy shit, Batman” is the most articulate thing I can come up with right now to describe that show. If Orphan Black blew me away with characters, Black Mirror blew me away with its audacity to push current technologies to their logical conclusions, creating total farce in one episode (series opener “The National Anthem”) and a gut-wrenching portrait of perfect “memory” in another (the horrifying episode “The Entire History of You”). The saddest episode, with the most despicable character, was of course “Fifteen Million Merits.” While tragic, it was great to see Jessica Brown-Findlay again. She’s a great actress and I’d like to see more of her. And that, my nearly nonexistent readers is what I’ve been up to so far in this new-ish year. Look for a review of Chuck Wendig’s fantastical take on mob life in NYC, The Blue Blazes, coming soon. Happy reading!




Do Reading And Gaming Really Mix?

This blog may be evolving into a hybrid book/gaming blog. While I’ve been reading, I’v also been gaming, and I feel more apt to blog about gaming than books right now. In part, I feel like I’m loosing my ability to speak adequately about the books I’ve been reading lately. I finished Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and picked up The Lost Daughter while I wait for The Story Of A New Name to arrive. These books have a lot going on in them, on many different levels and I feel inadequately equipped to critique/discuss them, even though I want to. I suppose, then that it’s a personal hang-up that I just need to decide to get over. Part of the issue too, I’m sure is that I’ve been writing about books less, and thus feel out of practice. But it’s so much easier to write about gaming!

I’ve leveled 3 different classes in FFXIV:ARR over the past few weeks, including a role I never thought I would play: healer. It hasn’t been so bad. The way the class/job system is currently set up in game, there is one class, Arcanist, that levels two jobs, Scholar and Summoner. That’s kind of awesome to be able to level a healer and a DPS role at the same time. The downside, of course is that they share stat points, so you have to go all the way with INT or split points into INT & MIND. This can be ok on the SCH because of Cleric Stance, which lets you freely point-swap in combat, but it can be really bad for SMN because of the lack-luster DPS if you put points into anything but INT. Honestly though, the SCH Eos fairy can do most of the healing in the 4-man dungeons, leaving the player free to do DPS, as long as you summon Eos before switching into Cleric stance. Both jobs use DoTs and it’s perfectly doable for a SCH to manage those DoTs while Eos heals, throwing in a heal as needed. The internets says to pick either SCH or SMN and allocate stats accordingly, but I’ve managed just fine playing both with INT as the primary stat. Additionally, since Rogue/Ninja DPS was just released, healers are in high demand, so I can be kind of crappy at it and still have players be grateful just to get in queue with me. That is exactly how I leveled Conjurer/WHM, the mostly straight healing job in the game. I have to work a bit harder on this healing class, but it’s still ok to play. And I got a unicorn out of it, so there’s that.

I recently discovered photoshop and screen shots on my PS3, so I have been having fun making pretty pictures in-game. Here’s my absolute favorite thus far:

Moonfire Faire


Book Blog Neglect

I blame her, again. But she's so much better as a BLM.

I blame her, again. But she’s so much better as a BLM.

I’ve neglected this little book blog a bit for the past few weeks (erm, months). I’ve actually been reading too, which is the bigger shame. I’ve finally read the awesome Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey, which was like a breezy tour through the best of Jane Austen, with knitting thrown in for fun. I also finally read Lauren Beukes’s atmospheric and original Zoo City, which I had downloaded as an ebook months ago when it was on sale. I loved it, and had only a few minor issues with it. I finished Lev Grossman’s unsatisfying conclusion to the Magician’s Trilogy, The Magician’s Land and had some major issues with it. I’ve held off writing about that book specifically so I can get some critical distance and not simply rip it to shreds. I was in a pretty bad mood after finishing that book, and I still scowl thinking about it. I recently started the much-lauded Tana French novel, In The Woods, and can’t for the life of me figure out what all the hype is about (at least it was on sale). I know she’s got a new Dublin Murder Squad book out, and I’ve been in the mood for a decent thriller (I’ve been watching Hannibal too, but mostly because of Madds Mikkelsen’s awesomeness; Hugh Dancy is a little too twitchy for me), so I thought I’d start at the beginning of the Murder Squad. I almost went with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, but I’d rather wait for a moody David Fincher movie than slog through crappy prose to find out what I already know (even if I do have to suffer through Ben Affleck). I feel like a curmudgeonly reader writing such things; maybe I am. I’m ok with that.

I am, however,  excited because I just bought the amazing Kameron Hurley’s new book, The Mirror Empire, whose release I somehow, unfathomably, missed in August. I got the ebook version of it, but might have to wait for the library hold to come in as starting at electronic screens a lot seems to be giving me problems lately. I don’t read on my e-reader very often, but it makes me immensely sad that I can’t seem to to read on it at all without getting headaches. I also bought a booklight so I can read physical books in bed, but it’s an LED light, so I am worried about having the same problem. It is a huge blow to my sense of self to realize that I have physical limitations on what and how I can read. In physical form, I bought Murakami’s latest, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years Of Pilgrimage at a midnight release party at my favorite local bookstore; I did not realize Murakami was popular enough to warrant Harry Potter-style release parties. In any case, I won a signed copy that’s sitting proudly on my shelf at home, unread. I also found a signed copy of David Mitchell’s new book, The Bone Clocks, at my other favorite local bookstore and snapped it up (signed copies are the thing these days).  I’ve stayed away from reviews of Murakami, but I did read James Wood’s review in the current New Yorker and was a little sad that Wood essentially panned it. I’ll make my own judgement later, but I can already see one of his points.

Agent Of Hel: Poison FruitIt’s turning into Fall here: clouds in the morning, a chilly bite in the air, even when afternoon sun burns the clouds away. Leaves are starting to turn, with a few hints at orange already. For me, this means that a new Jacqueline Carey book is just around the corner. Agent Of Hel: Poison Fruit comes out on October 7th. It’s the final in the trilogy, but I have hope for more after what she did with the Kushieline series. Pemkowet is one of my favorite book-places, and I have been waiting to go for a visit since the first grey, chilly morning of the season. Summer is over. I am getting back into the swing of things. Hopefully I’ll be gaming less, reading more, and neglecting this blog a little less.

On a very sad final note, the wonderful modern fantasy writer and fairy-tale teller Graham Joyce died yesterday from aggressive lymphoma cancer.  I happened to be on twitter when it was announced (on his twitter feed) and it was the strangest feeling, receiving that kind of news in that particular fashion in real time. Joyce recently spoke about the language of cancer on BBC Radio 4′s Word of Mouth Program. He will be missed.