Sunday, August 30, 2015

Skeleton Women by Mingmei Yip

fpo  Camilla, the Heavenly Songbird with the angelic voice, is a skeleton women - a beautiful woman trained to seduce men, uncover their secrets, and if necessary, reduce them to corpses. She was plucked from an orphanage as a child and groomed to be the perfect spy. Her mission: to discover the secrets of the number one gangster in town, Master Lung, for her boss Big Brother Wang, the number two gangster in town. At the tender age of nineteen, Camilla has become a celebrated singer in Shanghai and Master Lung's mistress. Although she has been Master Lung's mistress for nearly a year, she has yet to complete her mission and Big Brother Wang is becoming impatient. Complicating matters are the amorous advances of two other men and the arrival of two women Camilla suspects to also be skeleton women, the mysterious magician Shadow and the androgynous journalist Rainbow Chang. But Camilla is not to be deterred. Using Sun Tzu's The Art of War to guide her, Camilla is determined to navigate her way through the choppy waters she finds herself in.

Skeleton Women was not quite what I expected. I was all set for a femme fatale thriller set in 1930s (or so) Shanghai, China. I'm not exactly sure what this is, but it wasn't that. There were lots of good ideas in this book, but they didn't go anywhere. Rainbow Chang and Shadow are good examples of this. Shadow is set up to be a skeleton woman to rival Camilla but she never is really much of a challenge to Camilla. All she appears to want is to become rich and famous. As for Rainbow Chang, much is made of her androgynous style of dressing but why this is an important detail is never explained or used to any effect. Then there are the multiple men who profess their undying love for Camilla. None of it ever felt real. They seemed more to exist to validate Camilla's status as a skeleton woman capable of seducing men.

The biggest problem with Skeleton Women was the tone.  If she fails to fulfill her mission, Big Brother Wang might decide Camilla no longer serves any purpose and have her killed. If Master Lung discovers her mission he will definitely kill her, so for Camilla the stakes are high. Nevertheless, between the constant quoting from the Art of War, that Camilla approached everyone and every situation like it was a game of chess, and every other man falling in love with Camilla,  it wasn't always clear if this was intended to be a comedy, a satire, or a realistic story. I think this story would have benefited from having a character that challenged Camilla's point of view. Without such a character to contradict her (or to contrast and compare her to), Camilla often seemed less like an adult women caught in a battle between two dangerous men, and more like a child playing a dress up game where she is the most popular and beautiful girl in town. I just couldn't tell if I should be taking Camilla seriously, or laughing at her blunders, or what.

I'm glad I read this if only for the sake that I wanted to try something new. One of my goals this year was to read more writers who were not from the United States or the UK (because historically most of the writers I read have come from those two countries). In particular, I have read very little from Asian (or even Asian-American) writers. This doesn't quite work for me but there are several others waiting to be read in my TBR pile. Better luck next time.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Living With the Dead by Kelley Armstrong

fpo Living With the Dead is a little different from the other books in Kelley Armstrong's Women of the Otherworld series. Usually one supernatural woman takes center stage. Here, the story is told from the points of view of multiple people. The three main characters are Hope, Robyn, and Adele. Robyn, a human, suddenly finds herself the suspect in a murder investigation when one of her PR clients is murdered. Luckily for Robyn her childhood friend Hope Adams, a half-demon journalist who specializes in weird tales, and her werewolf boyfriend Karl recently arrived in town. The third woman in this tale is Adele, a psychotic young woman with the power of clairvoyance.

This wasn't bad, but it definitely was not my favorite entry in the Otherworld series. Robyn plays a large role in the story which is problematic since she's a human who isn't aware of the existence of supernaturals. There ends up being a lot of running around in circles when a two-minute conversation could solve about ninety percent of the issues everyone has.

The best parts of Living With the Dead were those that involved Hope and Karl trying to figure out their relationship as they tried to save Robyn from herself and the supernaturals after her. I wish there had been more Hope and Karl and less Robyn. Oh well, in any series there is bound to be a few missteps. At least the ending hints at something big coming later in the series, something that could shake up the supernatural world. I'm excited to find out what that something might be.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Junk by Josephine Myles

fpo  Junk by Josephine Myles is a sweet M/M romance between a hoarder and the decluttering expert that comes to help. Jasper is a librarian who simply can't bear to let any piece of paper with words on it go into the trash bin without thinking about the potential information that may be lost to civilization. Any book or newspaper the library or a student (Jasper works at an academic library) wants to throw away is rescued from the trash bin by Jasper and taken home. His house becomes so overwhelmed with books and papers that there are whole rooms he no longer is able to enter. Luckily Jasper isn't so far gone that he can't see that he needs help. Knowing that he can't do it on his own, Jasper seeks professional help. That helps takes the shape of twin brother and sister, Lewis and Carroll (their mother is a serious Alice in Wonderland fan). Carroll may be bright and bubbly but it is Lewis that Jasper is immediately drawn to.

As a librarian and book collector myself (no books are cutting off access to any part of my home, thank you very much), Jasper's tendency to want to protect and preserve the written word was understandable. Obviously he had taken this a little too far. I've never been particularly interested in watching any of the reality shows about hoarding but it was interesting to see how Lewis and Carroll worked with Jasper and their other clients in helping them confront the various emotional issues that led to hoarding in the first place.

As for the romance, it was sweet if somewhat anti-climatic. That Jasper and Lewis would get together was never a question. In a romance, it is the journey that counts. Here the journey was both too quick and too drawn out. The two men have an immediate sexual attraction but Lewis has ethical concerns about getting involved with a client. So they do, but they don't, and then of course they do. Of the two lead characters, Jasper was the most intriguing, what with his hoarding and mother issues. Lewis didn't develop quite as much as I would have liked. He has issues with moving (and moving in) too fast in relationships and doesn't seem to have changed all that much by the end of the novel. Notwithstanding these quibbles, overall I enjoyed Junk. The hoarding angle was a new to me and it seemed to be handled well. This is the first book I've read by Myles and I look forward to finding what else she has written.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Batgirl by Gail Simone

fpo  After finishing Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life, I needed something light, fun, and short. As I have said elsewhere on this blog, I only started really reading comics a few years ago when DC started their New 52 series. With regard to superhero comics, there are so many alternative stories it is hard to know where to start. The New 52 gave me a place to start. Unfortunately, I fell behind primarily because I don't like buying single issue comics and then I would forget when collections were published.

fpoAnyway, the new Batgirl series set in Brooklyn was mentioned on one of the podcasts I listened to and it sounded the life the perfect palate cleanser after the (literally and figuratively) heavy A Little Life. The only confusing thing was that I remembered reading a few Batgirl comics set in Gotham when the New 52 started. It turns out that the series got a new author and the series rebooted the right word? I am baffled as to how comics are published. I tried to look for a definitive list of Batgirl comics and found among other things that there are multiple volume ones. The newest series was written by Brendan Fletcher but since I like to read things in order as much as possible, I decided to start with Gail Simone's Batgirl.

Like I said earlier, I was looking for something light, fun, and short. Batgirl was relatively short, but I'm not sure "fun" is an apt description. "Light" definitely is not. I read all five of the collected comics written by Gail Simone as part of the New 52 (well as far as I can tell, again slightly baffled by how comics are published and republished). Most of these stories are pretty dark. One character gets his leg caught in a bear trap set up in parking lot to catch car thieves. Starving people are murdered with poisoned food. A missing family member turns out to be homicidal. Not exactly light reading. Then again, the last book I read felt so real and this was over the top bloody, so while it wasn't the palate cleanser I expected it still managed to serve its purpose. And there were some light moments.

fpoI love cartoons. Maybe because most of the cartoons I watch are aimed at kids and I tend to associate superhero stories with kids, I expected Batgirl to be light in tone. Yes, I've seen Christopher Nolan's Batman, but well, I guess I hadn't realized how much that darker version of Batman had carried over to other series.

fpo This isn't to say I didn't like Batgirl, I did. Simone's Barbara Gordon/Batgirl is strong, complicated, flawed, and heroic. I thoroughly enjoyed reading these comics. One of may favorite story lines is when Batgirl finds herself in a sort of utopia. Instead of being a vigilante that protects Gotham in the night when it is at its most vulnerable; she's a guardian angel that crisscrosses the city in daylight. I also loved Barbara Gordon/Batgirl as Bête Noire aka The Black Beast and the Batgirls. I would love to read a series that continues that story line!

fpoThe only time I thought it missed the mark was when vampires came into play, yes vampires. No surprise here, there is a lot I don't know about the DC universe so maybe supernatural characters are the norm in the Bat universe, but I tended to see Gotham and the Bat family of characters as dealing with human villains. They may be crazy, strange-gadget wielding villains, but human villains none the less.

All said it done, this was a great series. Looking forward to reading more of DC Comics New 52, as well as other comics and graphic novels.