Mini Review: I’ll Have What She’s Havingby Rebecca Harrington

This book only took me about an hour and a half to read, so I don’t have an awful lot to say about it.  But it was a fun concept and parts made me smile, so here’s a little review.  Compact and to the point like Victoria Beckham.  (Now I know more than one fact about Victoria Beckham!  An educational evening was had by all.)

source: randomhouse

My rating: *** (3 stars).  This book is amusing and fun without really bringing anything new to the table. (Excluding all the bizzar-o foods that probably should never have been brought to Harrington’s table at all.)  It’s sort of like reading the facebook updates of your funny friend – the one who actually keeps up with pop culture but isn’t an asshole about it.

I’ll Have What She’s Having: My Adventures In Celebrity Dieting was not even on my radar until yesterday afternoon.  I was reading Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea on my lunch break, when suddenly a scene that I remembered as violent from when I read it as a teenager turned out to be even grosser than I recalled.

First of all: kittens are sacred and should not be harmed. Obviously I’d blocked that passage from memory in my youth.

Second of all: ewwwww, not what I wanted to be picturing while I ate my chickpeas and za’atar.  So I had to put that beautiful classic of Japanese literature aside for the duration of my meal, and cast around for something else to distract me.  (I also hadn’t read any nonfiction books this month and now I can brag that I fit one in at the last minute!)

When you’re in the back room of a bookshop, distractions are always close at hand.  And my hand happened to fall upon this brightly colored little foray into the weird world of celebrity dieting.  The basic premise is this: Rebecca Harrington loved reading about celebrities and she loved dieting.  So, in the name of journalistic integrity, she decided to walk the walk.  Eat the eat.  Suffer and slave away in the kitchen for the reader’s amusement.  Disastrous “celery loaf” and other experiments occasionally exiled her from the kitchen in horror, but she keeps on making cabbage stew and green risotto. Rebecca is one determined diet-investigator.  She’s not going to let Beyonce’s physically dangerous cleanses beat her down without a fight.

Obviously, the author’s sense of humor is what kept me reading this book.  If it were just a report on how different celebrities’ eating habits were totally messed up, I would have had to put it down pretty quickly.  I, too, have been obsessed with diets.  So obsessed that my eating routines were even stricter and more dangerous than some of the ones we’re meant to laugh at in this chronicle.  So while I appreciated the miserable details of totally unrealistic diets, I appreciated Harrington’s ability to laugh at how unsustainable the worst ones were even more.  This isn’t to say that she deplored every famous person’s smug routines.  On Gwyneth Paltrow’s food rules she reports: “If I wasn’t going to go bankrupt doing it, I would follow the Gwyneth diet to the letter every day.” (p 23)  Luckily for my own welfare, I don’t even have the funds to try one week of the It’s All Good way of eating.  Even Gwynnie’s books are a little out of my price range.  (And let’s not even get started on the beluga caviar Jackie Kennedy used to consume…  That was one of my favorite chapters, and I might be the only New Englander who doesn’t give a shit about the Kennedys.)  But when things got really wacky, like with Greta Garbo’s live-in nutritionist or Karl Lagerfield’s ten diet cokes a day, our faithful guide Rebecca is honest about how much these regimes suck the energy, fun, and friends right out of your life.  No wonder so many famous people are irascible waifs.  I could barely sit through a lecture on J.R.R. Tolkien while I was starving, and they have to film interviews while probably hallucinating that the reporter is an ice cream cone.

The most amusing question Harrington answers in her adventure is, “Would my friends stay with me until the end even though I kept making them come to my house for dinner parties where they all told me to my face that they despised all of my food?”  That’s the sort of dilemma most readers should be worried about when they buy a diet book, not how much weight they’ll drop in the first few dehydrated and muscle-deteriorating months.  I’ll Have What She’s Having made me want to write letters of apology to all the friends who had to suffer through my over-planned and under-seasoned meals when I was myself obsessed with diets.  Also, I should probably thank them for never ordering pizza right in front of me like Harrington’s friends have reportedly done.  It also made me realize just how silly it is that so many famous skinny people make even more money by writing books telling us that we can be just like them if only we eat more yeast or drink nothing but eggs mixed with milk in the mornings.  Why do we keep buying those books?  Why do we need to know about Elizabeth Taylor’s obsession with putting steak on half a peanut butter sandwich?  I don’t know, but I enjoyed hearing Rebecca Harrington’s results of the investigation.

And, yes, it quickly distracted me from the cat-violence.  In short: a fun, conversational jaunt through one woman’s experiment in living through several celebrities’ bad decisions.  I even learned some facts about famous people along the way.  (Madonna will forever be associated with seaweed in my brain, now.)  Don’t read this if you’re still in a tenuous recovery from an eating disorder, but you might enjoy it if you, like so many of us, can’t help but flip through every glossy-photoed “eat like me” hardcover that features a skinny white girl eating fake pasta on the cover.

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Book Review: The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig

Star Ratings:

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

This is the first of Zweig’s books I’ve read, and after one taste I know it won’t be the last.  Like Christine, our wilted heroine who gets a glimpse of high society and can’t bear to give it up, I’ve peeked into a new kind of world.

The post office girl of the title is not living a fulfilling life.  The novel’s opening lines attest to this:

“One village post office in Austria is much like another: seen one and you’ve seen them all.  Each with identical meager furnishings provided (or rather issued, like uniforms) during Franz Josef’s rule, all drawn from the same stock, their sad look of administrative stinginess is the same everywhere.”

Living in a dreary little town, caring for her aging mother, Christine doesn’t have the energy or the means to dream about a happier life.  She goes meekly from one drudgery to the next, survival the only goal, and maybe a good night’s sleep.  But when Christine’s glamorous aunt and wealthy uncle whisk her away to share in their luxurious vacation at a super (super) posh hotel in the Alps, her perception of life is shattered.  Humble repetition is replaced with the gleaming, giddy swirl of delights these holiday-makers experience every day.  Christine’s initial trepidation at being surrounded with so much careless opulence disappears in one memorable moment when a glimpse of her made-up self in the hotel mirror reveals a fashionable, alluring young lady.  The magic of falling under own charm starts to work on all the other guests, and suddenly our post office girl is a star amongst the bright young things.

But things can not last.  The Post Office Girl is divided into two parts, with a chasm of disenchantment separating them.  We, the readers, have to suffer with the knowledge that Christine finds herself floating above while at the hotel – her effervescent joy is clouding her judgement.  And falling from such dizzying heights makes reality so much worse.  It is a soured young woman who returns to her desk job, and the change is so marked that one can barely imagine the same character.  When Christine meets, by happenstance and a mutual friend, an equally bitter young man who scorns the trap of wealth and class as much as she does (but for different reasons), she finds the company that misery so craves.  But the unhappiness that post-vacation Christine and post-War Ferdinand share builds up from the city’s grime into something more volatile.  In questioning the set up of a society that seems to have failed them, they long for a chance to grab at a moment of the freedom they’ve witnessed in other people.  They devise a plan. The reader wonders if things could possibly work out in their favor.

And that’s the story of The Post Office Girl.

Some dismally fun background info: The Post Office Girl was published posthumously.  Zweig was an unhappy but fascinating fellow in his own right: an Austrian-Jewish writer living in Vienna, who wrote prodigiously in the years between wars.  When Nazism began to gain a threatening amount of power, he and his wife relocated to Brazil, where they committed suicide.  I knew about his demise before I read The Post Office Girl, so the gloomy middle section of the book seemed even more depressing.  And then – once the book’s tone buoys hopefully a little bit in the last forty pages – I couldn’t shake the author’s eventual fate from my head while reading about the characters’ cheerful, fatal desperation.

Yet even while destitution and inescapable dissatisfaction molder within the characters’ hearts, a brisk energy blows through the pages like the Alpine winds which so invigorate Christine on her travels.  The story has peaks of joy and clarity, interspersed with valleys of despair.  It has a sense of humor marred by the cold injustice of poverty and wartime.  When you think that Wes Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel” (a film I won’t apologize for loving) was inspired by Stefan Zweig’s writing, you might read with a weather eye out for a flash of the madly comic spark that kept picturesque absurdities piling up in that film. (I do want to read The World Of Yesterday now.) The Post Office Girl does have a fabulous hotel, fast cars, and stunningly delectable food.  There are sharply sarcastic conversations to satisfy the wryest reader: in glamorous repartee during the first half of the book, then in pessimistic rants later on.  But Zweig’s writing (in this particular book, at least) is more morose, ballasted by the weight of past violence and future hopelessness.

To the characters, everything comes down to money: the humiliation of any luxury being “too expensive”, or the mistreatment poor people must suffer without comment while the wealthy enjoy life instead of just enduring it.  In reading the book, I too felt myself scorning the wealthy while lusting after wealth, but Zweig had a talent in letting his characters’ follies speak for themselves.  We can sympathize with Christine’s rapture at the hotel while nodding wisely at the eventuality of her disappointment, because we aren’t struck so silly by the rarity of such happy surroundings.  As readers, we probably see where this is headed, and when her whirlwind of a vacation comes crashing down at the novel’s midpoint then we know there’s still a long ways to plummet.  Zweig made me think about how I experience luck, class, and work without forcing me to take a side.  I could balk in horrified concern at the unhappiness of Austria’s most unfortunate citizens, and gaze agog at the lifestyles of fancy people who have the luxury of wardrobe-drama being the most important aspect of their day.  Conversations on either side of the gap – the gap in society, and the gap in between the novel’s two parts – invite both sympathy and criticism.  I’m glad I haven’t experienced either extreme.

The pacing of this book was a bit too jolting to keep me reading straight through: I got caught up in Christine’s initial transformation in the mountains but had to take a break when disappointment brought things back down to ground-level.  The language itself is by turns gorgeous and grimy (Joel Rotenberg translated my NYRB edition).  A first glimpse of glorious nature took my breath away, and the squalor of a cheap Viennese hotel made my skin crawl.  The descriptions of wartime conditions are appropriately frightful, especially since we listen along through Christine’s sheltered ear.   By the end of The Post Office Girl, I was quite ready to wash my hands of the whole turbulent lifestyle it captures, but I think it was just the right length to really capture the two sides of existence in Europe between world wars.

I don’t know what I’ll read next by Zweig, but if his insights here are anything to base my opinion upon, I expect more sharp observation of the facades and desperation that make people so endlessly fascinating.

The Darkest Part Of The Forest is out today! Here’s why I love it.

I am a foolish mortal.*  When I read (and re-read) the galley of The Darkest Part Of The Forest a couple of months ago, I was full to bursting with things to say about it.  The effort it took to not wildly bang my keyboard with exclamation point and dreadful heart symbols may have caused me to physically shake.  Holly Black has a new modern tale of Faerie out!  She’s returned – triumphant as a queen – to the genre that first ensnared me to worship her work when I was but a wee sprite!  Exclamation point!  Heart symbol!  ❤  But, alas, I never got around to rhapsodizing in print, and now the book is out in the wilderness of fine bookstores across the country (independent bookshops, please).

Rather than rushing through a full review and spoiling my chance to go into wayyyy too much detail about Faerie ballads and woodland settings and promises in folklore, allow me to shout a few more not-so-subtle votes of recommendation into the Void That Is The Internet.  Then I can write a more balanced critical review later.  With way more talk about old ballads and symbolic plants.

If I were to start talking about the plot, you’d be reading for days.  Have a quick summary, snagged from the back cover of the galley:

Children can have a cruel, absolute sense of justice.  Children can kill a monster and feel quite proud of themselves.  A girl can look at her brother and believe they’re destined to be a knight and a bard who battle evil.  She can believe she’s found the thing she’s been made for.

Hazel lives with her brother, Ben, in the strange town of Fairfold, where humans and fae exist side by side.  The faeries’ seemingly harmless magic attracts tourists, but Hazel knows how dangerous they can be, and she knows how to stop them.  Or she did, before.

At the center of it all, there is a glass coffin in the woods.  It rests right on the ground, and in it sleeps a boy with horns on his head and ears as pointy as knives.  Hazel and Ben were both in love with him as children.  The boy has slept there fore generations, never waking.

Until one day, he does…

As the world turns upside down and a hero is needed to save them all, Hazel tries to remember her years spent pretending to be a knight. But swept up in new love, shifting loyalties, and the fresh sting of betrayal, will it be enough?  (Quoted from the cover of the advance reading copy.  Little, Brown.)

So, a list.  Reasons I Am Beyond Overjoyed That Holly Black Has Written Another Faerie Book:

  • Beautiful writing It’s mature while still retaining the sharp perspective of teenaged main characters. Tithe, Valiant, and Ironside were wonderful books.  They are single-handedly responsible for my early love of urban fantasy and fantasy stories with rougher, modern, teenaged characters.  That said, they are very clearly the early work of a writer who has access to a well of folkloric knowledge going fathoms deep.  The stories are great but the prose occasionally stumbled.  The Darkest Part Of The Forest contains even better writing.  The plot is delicately knotted but never tangles, and there’s barley any clunky mythological exposition.  Events flow, characters join and leave the story’s dance with logical ease, and even the magic that alters reality follows rules that seem as natural as the moon’s cycles.
  • The characters are complex.  Even the bad faeries.  Even the humans! How tired am I of YA fantasy books that portray non-magical teenagers as vapid peasants who only care about their phones?  Pretty darn tired.  Early on in this book, Hazel attends a party around the glass coffin where the sleeping faerie boy is entombed.   These parties seem to be a generally accepted part of high school life; Hazel sees people she knows – some whom she likes, and some she would rather avoid. Our heroine doesn’t hold herself to be a higher species than her classmates and friends, though.  In fact, she’s got a reputation for kissing an awful lot of people, and has no shame in acting upon it. (Something I also liked about The Coldest Girl in Coldtown.)  The town’s football star has a changeling brother, and is totally not a meat-head about it.  And the Folk who mingle with the population of Fairfold and make the town into some border between the worlds; they’ve got complex motivations too.  Who could blame a mother for protecting her child at any cost – even if humans have to suffer for it?  Why shouldn’t a brother defend his sister’s choice even if it invites the wrath of a cruel king?  And yet, the king’s cruelty isn’t one-dimensional, either.  No matter how badly faeries or humans behave, nobody’s evil just because the story needs a villain.  And the heroes are sometimes the most selfish of all.
  • Strong sibling and family bonds!  There’s nothing that sticks a barb through my heart quite like family members struggling to protect one another.  Hazel and Ben mostly raised themselves when they were younger, thanks to their well-meaning but ill-equipped parents largely neglecting to behave like proper adults.  This is how their roles as knight and bard came to be such a huge part of each sibling’s personality.  Their loyalty to one another – this us-against-the-world mentality – keeps all the supernatural drama feeling very close to home.  Likewise, there are some families in Fairfold who are half-in and half-out of the human world.  When the Folk become a dangerous presence instead of just a novelty attraction, some townspeople get a might uppity.  It’s in those moments that family strengths are tested, and the book makes quite an emotional impact.  The local faerie court has its own share of familial discord.  The Darkest Part Of The Forest reminds us to be very grateful that our parents aren’t faerie tyrants, but also drives home how important it is to stand up for your siblings no matter the cost.
  • Faerie systems that are completely new to the genre.  When you’ve got a story about a half magical town; changelings; and disappearances to which people willingly turn a blind eye, there’s a big risk of recycling old material through a slightly different point of view.  I dig re-told legends, as you may have noticed.  (See my Thoughts On Tam Lin post from the spring for way too much legend-digging.)  The Darkest Part Of The Forest has some elements from oft-adapted ballads and tales woven throughout, but Black is a confident enough writer that she creates a faerie court that could only exist around her fictional town.  The setting and the magic grow as part of one another, with individual characters contributing hugely to the unusual environment.  Complicated curses and tricky rules are important to the action, as they usually are in faerie tales. But in this case I couldn’t predict exactly which twist of a promise would set things into motion.  Black strikes just the right balance between recognizable emblems of traditional faerie-lore and innovative modern fantasy in her newest book.  Not that I would expect anything else.
  • Speaking of things I couldn’t predict: this book had several interesting romantic storylines!  What??  That’s right, not only did I find myself unexpectedly intent upon some of the tentative couples that formed during the course of this adventure, but the development of dreaded feelings didn’t seem to pop up out of the fictional blue without invitation.  Just because a boy and a girl meet in a charged and life-changing situation, it doesn’t mean they’re fated for one another (or a boy and the boy, in some cases).  Characters can want to help one another for reasons that go beyond their hormones, but the hormones aren’t completely ignored.  Trust, friendship, and shared experiences are more effective at bringing young people together than fate or insta-attraction. Huzzah!
  • Wild and dizzying faerie revels.  They’re important to me. (See my review of Thorn Jack, which was an awkward book at times but had great fay parties.) This book did not disappoint.  Time spent with the Folk makes people bloodthirsty, fearsome, brave, and foolish.  That’s the faerie land I know and love.  More, please, Holly Black!  Your books keep getting better and better.

Do you like faerie stories?  Buy this book.  Do you like unapologetic and morally complex teen characters?  Buy this book.  Want to spend hours making notes about every reference to ballads and folklore you see?  Buy a pad of paper, and then buy this book.  Want to just tear through a fun and electrifying story to take your mind off of mundane woes?  Head to your bookstore and then settle down with this book.  THIS BOOK, FOLKS.  I’m so excited that it’s out in the world.

Five very obvious stars.

*Definitely foolish.  Other parts of that statement are under debate.

Book Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 stars)

Be it known that I read an advanced galley of The Buried Giant and some details may change before publication.  The book will come out on March 3, 2015, from Alfred A Knopf.

Ishiguro is full of surprises.  His novels have become modern classics, inspiring movies and winning awards all over the place.   (How did he write so well from a young girl’s point of view in Never Let Me Go, capturing the competitive nature over favorite teachers and imaginary horses?  Kathy was given a voice I can still hear in my head whenever I remember that death exists, and somehow she is a comfort.  That book just wrecked me, it was so beautiful and the characters felt so real.  Similarly, Ishiguro is responsible for The Remains of the Day, which he apparently wrote in just four weeks.  That book has grown to be synonymous with the risky country-house discretion and Very English Butlers.)

So much of Kazuo Ishiguro’s work embodies some defining trait of British-ness.  The struggle with mortality, personal vs. political sacrifice, the faults of memory, loyalty to a culture that is not so loyal to you… I could go on.  Even his books that aren’t set in the UK seem to focus on concerns of the changing past and the burden of forgetting failures; themes that I always associate with classic English novels.  His subjects and styles change time and time again, and you never know what sort of story you’ll be getting into when you pick up one of his books.  But you can always be sure that wresting your brain out of the book’s captivating language and ambling pace will take a while once you’ve fallen under its spell.

Such is the case with The Buried Giant, Ishiguro’s newest book. The Buried Giant will come out in March and I won’t stop talking about it for some time.  It’s set in Britain during the Dark Ages, when Britons and Saxons lived in small communities scattered across the island, and a day of traveling could bring untold dangers.  The elements, disease, fearful villagers, and highway bandits were very real threats to anyone out in the open back then.  In The Buried Giant, mythical beasts cause trouble just as naturally.  While creatures from fantasy do feature in the book, the unruffled style in which this tale is told never builds the magic up to be terribly show-stopping – or even unusual – to the characters who witness it.  Just part of the scenery, and no more pressing than a powerful need to eat.  Mostly, this is a story about an old couple who want to journey from their community to see their son.  The Arthurian knights, Saxon warriors, cursed dragons, and mystical islands are merely companions and landmarks on their journey.  But, of course, the journey can not be so simple as we may hope for these kindly Britons.

Axl and Beatrice are leaving their village; a sort of warren housing the community within a hill.  The elderly couple used to be respected by their neighbors, but in recent times they’ve met with coldness and odd manners.  The more Axl thinks about the inexplicable change, the surer he grows that they are all forgetting people and events which had been important to them not too long ago.  A “mist” has fallen on the collective memory of Britons and Saxons alike, so soon after peace was finally struck between their two warring races.  Nobody discusses what they will not remember, and recollections come without warning or invitation to Axl and Beatrice throughout their time together.  It was surreal and unnerving to read as one character re-told a shared memory to another who could only trust to believe that it was true.  Unnerving in such a way that made me worry quietly about the book whenever I wasn’t reading it.  What brought about this clouded barrier to recent history?  Were Axl and Beatrice really remembering things, or just telling stories to comfort each other?  Would their devotion be strong enough to guide them half-blindly through a journey, one that so many external forces would attempt to alter to suit grander – and sometimes dangerous – ends?

I could not get enough of this book’s style or story, though it’s hard to pinpoint what was so mesmerizing to me as I read.  There was clearly something missing in my reading life recently, and The Buried Giant filled that gap.  Was I feeling nostalgic for a charming, wandering epic ever since the Hobbit movies failed to capture Tolkien’s original style?  Possibly.  And Ishiguro delivered, though I’m reluctant to compare The Buried Giant to The Hobbit, despite the dragon and folks riding down a river in things that aren’t boats.  It reminds me more of his side-stories: the tales and legends Tolkien wrote that took place in Middle Earth, but were so obviously inspired by Northern epics and British storytelling traditions.  The conversational tone that guides readers into the green and wind-torn lands is familiar and comforting.  Whomever our narrator may be, he understands that we could get lost on our own in the dark ages.  Now and then, a little interjection reminds us of old Britain’s place in the shape of modern life.

“Once inside it, you would not have thought this longhouse so different from the sort of rustic canteen many of you will have experienced in one institution or another.” (quoted from an advanced galley and subject to change)

It’s moments like that which reminded me of good old J.R.R. Tolkien.  Ishiguro, too, can weave a tale that draws from the storytelling traditions of long ago, but holds out a kindly hand to his readers now and then.  It’s the same mixture of wonder and comfort in inhospitable surroundings that makes even unhappy scenes rather a joy to read.  I couldn’t stop reading Never Let Me Go even when my sweater sleeves were sodden with tears, nor was I about to put down The Buried Giant when confusion and fear for the beloved travelers threatened to get the better of me.

Yes, there are ogres, dragons, and nastier creatures here in small doses.  They are not nearly so terrifying as the prospect that Axel and Beatrice might somehow lose one another.  There’s a Saxon warrior on a mission and even Sir Gawain, old after his adventures with Arthur.  Their bravery in protecting two old Britons and one young Saxon boy is admirably knightly, even when their motivations veer towards selfish pride.  Gawain’s one-sided conversations with his horse make him a comical addition at times, but after a while the effects of so much war become clearer and turn him into a more tragic figure.  Violence and suspicion tore the land apart once, and could do so again at any moment, so of course the book has its bloody moments.  Some are almost dreamlike; one unbelievable moment after another, told with unblinking, measured prose.  Other glimpses of brutality are cushioned with that confident, wise language I mentioned earlier.

“The soldier let out a sound such as a bucket makes when, dropped into a well, it first strikes the water; he then fell forward onto the ground.  Sir Gawain muttered a prayer, and Beatrice asked: ‘Is it done now, Axl?’ ” (quoted from the advanced galley and subject to change)

The language here might seem strangely honest and simple at first, especially if – like me – you’ve been reading lots of fast-paced sarcastic writing lately.  But there is great depth below the surface.  There is a so much hidden underneath the mist that pacifies the people in Ishiguro’s early Britain.  As the real quest in The Sleeping Giant is that for memory and purpose, each character – and surely each reader – questions the benefit of forgetfulness, of forging one’s own memories based on remnants of love or hatred that fuel the current moment.  What would the state of Britain be if nothing could be left, untouched, to history?

But of course, we need to know the story.  So we keep reading as they keep walking.

I’m not exactly sure how to recommend The Buried Giant to friends or customers, but I intend to do so the best I can.  Rather than saying that it’s a good choice for anyone who liked Ishiguro’s earlier work, I’ll try to classify it as a restrained and moving quest story for fans of Romantic (capital R) epics and personal journeys.  I loved it in the same manner that I love reading Tolkien on a quiet day, but others might find the early-Medieval setting more reminiscent of Juliette Marillier’s writing, or various re-tellings of Arthurian legend.  This book is certainly not just for history lovers.  It’s a good choice for anyone who appreciates a simply-told story with unexpected layers of fallible humanity, each step leading to riddles even the best swordsman can’t cut through cleanly.

Book Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

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Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15 and up (contains torture and language)

I’m still recovering from the madness of the holidays; selling books at Christmastime doesn’t leave much brain- or will-power left at the end of the day for actually reading them. This will be a woefully shallow review, then, of a complex fantasy novel that I heartily enjoyed.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is Scott Lynch’s fun and smart addition to the world of big-ass fantasy books. Winter is the time for the Big Fantasy Novels waiting on your shelf. (Max Gladstone suggested as much in his nice article for The Book Smugglers here, so we know it’s true.) Perhaps the week before Christmas is not the best time to get embroiled in a 700-ish page chronicle of crime and religion and disguises and betrayal. Once I realized – about fifty pages in – that the twists and turns would be nagging at my mind for hours after each lunch break, it was too late to turn back.

In Scott Lynch’s rollicking and elaborate first installment of the Gentleman Bastard series, traditional fantasy meets the film “Casanova” meets The Count of Monte Cristo and even “The Sting.” Layer upon layer of cons and deceptions raise ever higher stakes in the expertly crafted plot, featuring a team of anti-heros who will steal your heart as they make off with all the money they can get their hands on.

The setting is reminiscent of Renaissance Italy – complete with extravagant mob bosses and descriptions of mouthwatering Mediterranean-style feasts. But it builds on a foundation of unknown, and possibly alien, origins that I’m anxious to learn more about as I continue reading the series. It’s not necessarily a pleasant city, though the rooftops owned by Camorr’s wealthiest citizens boast enchanted alchemical gardens, and the glass structures left over from before this era of men make for some impressive surroundings. The slums are horrifying and the upper crust festers just below their shining surfaces. Somewhere in between the grime and the glitz, the “Gentleman Bastards” steal from the rich and give to themselves, following the unscrupulous principles and meticulous training they received as wayward children.

Locke Lamora grew up on the streets of Camorr: an orphan with more guts than glory, trained up by the Thiefmaker from a very young age to cut purses and trick the gullible. His ambitious nature gets the better of him a few too many times, though, and the Thiefmaker sells the boy to Father Chainsthe “eyeless priest”, begging at his temple door – to get rid of this living liability. Father Chains is not the pious servant to the god Perelandro that he pretends to be for the benefit of generous passers-by, though. They are priests to the “nameless thirteenth” god: The Crooked Warden, Thiefwatcher and Father of Necessary Pretexts. (How great is that last title, eh?) Chains’s little band of bastards learns how to fake their way through the fanciest of dinner parties and fight their way through bad streets, all for one constant goal: relieving the dons and donas of their copious wealth.

Camorr has a duke, but he’s barely a side-note compared to the mafia-esque Barsavi family; the wealthy money-changer who has a hand in every deal; and the sinister branch of law enforcement known as the Spider. Locke and his friends swindle every single one of these powerful figures, and in doing so find themselves tangled up in more dangerous politics than they bargain for. The “Thorn of Camorr” might have all the best disguises and the self-confidence of a man twice his size, but the mysterious “Grey King” has taken an interest in their expert methods. By the time this first book shudders to an end, all the glory that goes along with each intricate con will be tainted and splattered with the trouble that the Grey King’s involvement brings to this family of friends.

The rough and winsome team of con men have to charm (or bludgeon) their ways out of some very sticky situations. Sticky with blood, expensive alcohol, fake-beard glue, and more blood. I had to speed-read through a few torturous scenes in Capa Barsavi’s floating fortress, and not only the pages about hungry sharks. The good humor that binds Locke, Jean, Bug, and the Sanza twins together is good for several laughs and frequent wry smiles, but this book is not a comedy. Senseless deaths happen, as they so often will in a fast and short life of crime. Bad men fortify their reputations with body parts. I’m easily grossed out, but the plot, characters, and world-building were good enough to keep me going through the nastier interludes.

On more than one occasion, I would flip back a few chapters to double check which name Locke was using, or which of the duke’s favorite dons was which. The names were a little hard to keep track of, and there are quite a lot of characters. But these complexities make the multiple deceptions all the more delicate, and therefore more exciting to watch as they unfurl and – sometimes – explode. The several hundred pages pass by quickly, because so many conflicts seem to involve a dangerously ticking clock, and Scott Lynch keeps the cogs turning at just the right pace. Locke and Jean’s past is revealed through short interludes interspersed throughout the immediate action, and I never wanted to leave either time line behind at the end of a section. Don’t tear through the story too fast, though, because even the conversations that don’t involve knives against anyone’s throat can be enlightening and entertaining. Irreverent repartee in the face of likely death never fails to make me smile, and the Gentlemen Bastards have a knack for it.

Also: strong bonds of friendship drive most of the book’s emotional impact, with no real romance to speak of. Hurrah! There are hints to Locke’s connection with an absent female member of the Bastards, and I’m hoping to read about her soon enough, but it’s all brotherly loyalty and family ties that cause the heartbreaks in The Lies of Locke Lamora.

I always keep an eye out for what sort of roles female characters fill in fantasy novels, and I have high hopes that Scott Lynch will continue to give his ladies the same capacity for both noble and self-serving actions as the characters he introduces here. I hear there are some rather swashbuckling dames in following books, and I can’t bloody wait. While none of the few main characters in this first offering were female, several major players in the plot were women of very varied morality and means. Educated alchemists, a bossy mafia daughter, and calculating old ladies – all as vivid as the ragtag group of men we follow most closely. Of course, the politics of a whore house had to be included, and I’m tired of whore houses in fantasy worlds, but at least these working folks got to take revenge on brutal men. And otherwise, I would say that Lynch is more in touch than many of his counterparts with the need for female characters of varied moralities and with diverse motivations. (I particularly like his response to a question on the subject here. Again, hurrah.)

I first came across Scott Lynch’s writing in the anthology Rogues, which I reviewed here. His short story was about a group of criminals who have to somehow steal an entire street, while a violent sorceress gleefully messes things up. It was a nifty story with characters I wanted to hang out with for a longer time. Now I want to spend more time with the Gentlemen Bastards, too. If the rest of his writing stands up to what I’ve read, then I’ll probably need to clear some shelf-space for the many pages full of heists, horrific mis-steps, friendship, and duplicity. I’m keen to read more, and look forward to a winter daydreaming about whatever scrape our not-quite-heroes need to get out of next.