As Lie the Dead, Kelly Meding

So, who thought it was a good idea to pick up the paperback borrowed at Christmas from my sister-in-law and start reading it last Thursday as a distraction from the mess of packing? It must have been me, because somehow I found myself bringing an unnecessary item with me on the plane even after I swore that I would stick to Kindle purchases for the next few months. It wasn’t my brightest idea, but then, sequels can have an undeniable power over the rational mind.

As Lie the Dead is the second (of four, I believe) books in the Dreg City series, the first of which (Three Days to Dead) I wrote about in December. This book picks up precisely where the first left off; it’s a rare move that I appreciate, especially in this genre, although the three and half month interval between readings did leave me a little fuzzy on the details of what had happened at the very end of Three Days. I’d never considered what challenges such a decision would cause for a writer – there is a finesse required when picking up characters right at the moment they’ve managed to escape the last bloody climax and shoving them along into the next adventure – until I tried it myself. I will be the first one to say the Kelly Meding does a much better job of it than I did. It was certainly worth straining my brain to recall a few chapters of another book in order to see where she took the story in this one.

My own experience in trying to take characters from one story to another was haphazard at best. In retrospect, I realize I didn’t have enough of the big picture sorted out, and when I got into the second part, it turned much darker than I was expecting. I kept looking for the snarky, comically lovelorn people I’d written months before, and they were nowhere to be found. In their place, I found fragile, damaged characters with histories I hadn’t even guessed at, and all of that back story really got in the way of the story I thought I wanted to tell. Stupid characters taking charge of their own lives – completely unfair in light of that fact that they wanted me to do all the heavy lifting when it came to actually telling the story. I was intrigued when I realized that Meding was doing just what I’d tried (and failed) to do. Her characters were getting thornier and more complex as well, but it worked with the direction of the series. The changes in them made it easier to understand and accept the story that was unwinding rather than seeming wildly out-of-place.

I admit, I was jealous. And, admittedly, distracted from reading in large part because, as much as I wanted to know what happened as a reader, I was more curious about how it all came together as a writer. (For the record, I haven’t figured it out completely yet, but it has certainly gotten the wheels turning, which is actually quite inconvenient since I had my heart set on working out the problems of another project when this idea decided to hunker down and demand my attention. Some day I will learn that I am not completely in control of this process and I’ll be better off for it, but today is not that day. Tomorrow probably isn’t either.)

Ultimately, I was impressed by how little of the story I was able to guess at as I read. I’m not usually the type of person to poke a stick into the conclusion to see what wiggles out; I much prefer to be surprised. In some cases, of course, writers seem determined to point the way with big, bold neon arrows, and although guessing at the twists doesn’t prevent me from enjoying a story, it’s nice to have a little mystery left in the relationship. Meding manages to sock it to her characters on a number of levels, repeatedly, until all I could think was that they really deserved a shower, or a nap, or at least some chocolate – anything to keep them going in the face of ever-escalating ass kickings and subterfuge – and she does it without giving away all of the secrets I expect she has planned for the next book.

 

To learn more about Kelly Meding, head over here.

Cold Days: A Novel of the Dresden Files, Jim Butcher (post the first)

It’s appalling that I haven’t finished this book for several reasons. The first is that I had been anxiously awaiting its release for over a year; The Dresden Files is probably my all-time favorite urban fantasy series, and usually when a new one is published, I have it read within the week at the very least. Secondly, although these books are relatively substantial, it’s not like I’m reading Tolstoy – Butcher can occasionally be a slow starter (I find that he often ends his novels on a nail destroying cliff hanger but takes a chapter or two to warm up) but he ramps up quickly and the action is non-stop – these are not books I linger over. I usually tear through them with a raging ferocity and find myself incredibly annoyed, ten or so hours later, that I have another eighteen months to wait for a new installment. His are well-written, character-loving, plot twist heavy popcorn novels.

And yet, here I am, almost a week into the new year without even this one delightful book done. I tried, I really did. I read in the airport during our long layover. I read when I woke up early, my body sick but still on east coast time. I read while I was waiting to watch Les Mis (finally) on Saturday night. I read a chapter at a time here and there, trying to collect myself and process the fact that less than twelve hours after we arrived home, my father called to say my grandmother was dying. It’s 2013, and the hits just keep on coming…

I’ve never particularly thought of 13 as being an unlucky number, but so far, I’ve found it difficult to remain completely above superstition. I rang in the new year with a clogged, aching head, and as I sit here this morning, trying to decide whether to turn around and fly back for the funeral while chowing on Tums to beat back my anxiety-related heartburn, I feel a little unlucky. One of the things that I love most about Harry Dresden though, is that he is a relentlessly unlucky guy. He’s a hero, in his way, but he is also beaten down so hard in every book that it takes a supernatural talent to keep rising above. Fortunately for him, he’s a wizard.

I’m not. I am blessed, I admit, with friends as dear and valiant as the ones Dresden fights and laughs and lives beside, and most times that feels as near to magic as I can imagine. There are days for us all when it stands out in stark relief that life doesn’t give a shit whether the last few weeks or months or years have been tough, and the choice – the choice we each face – is whether we want to fight. Dresden always does. He’s not much of a strategist, and he loses nearly as many fights as he wins, but he puts his head down and keeps moving forward against terrible odds. Because that’s what fighters do. To live another day, to have hope that things will get easier, sometimes, all it takes is putting one foot in front of another.

My grandmother was a fighter. She lived a hard life with many a deep valley, but in the last ten years, she and I have become close. I was terrified of her as a child; even though I grew taller than her in the fifth grade, she had a personality that sucked the air out of a room. She could be ferocious and never shied away from confrontation. I was timid and a picky eater – two things an Italian matriarch could hardly abide. In the last weeks of her life though, I visited and she seemed to really see me, an unexpected gift since she hadn’t been communicating almost at all. I sat with her and held her hand; she couldn’t really speak, but when I got up to leave, I told her I loved her and she mouthed back at me love. Love. She kept forming that word, although there was no sound at all. Love.

In the last decade, she and I learned to really love each other, to take both of our lives for what they were and accept what they could never be. It was a relationship I fought for, not one that came naturally to me, and it was all the more special for that. Some people we have to fight for; often, we have to fight for ourselves. She taught me that both matter, that it’s fighting that makes life unexpected and powerful and worth everything.

So that is what I’m trying to do. Just one small step forward, and then another, and another, until I can make a decision, or by failing to do so, make one anyway. It’s a little less hard, somehow, with a book on standby, with its flawed, striving characters patiently waiting for me to take a few minutes to remember to fight.

 

For more about Jim Butcher, head over here.

Three Days to Dead, Kelly Meding

I thought I was going to get this post done early. Of course, I thought I was going to be done with Three Days to Dead about two weeks ago, and I just barely finished it in time for my flight yesterday (I can’t read while traveling in moving vehicles, so it was as crucial to finish the book as it was to remember everything on my packing list). Instead, I’ve borrowed my husband’s computer while he gets ready to work from a satellite office, and I’m desperately trying to convince my jet-lagged brain to THINK. And to think quickly, because otherwise I’m going to be stuck typing this on the iPad in a Starbucks with questionable internet. Mmm coffee…

Apparently though, my brain thinks we’re on vacation already, even though we aren’t, not until I’m done writing this. Fortunately, I’ve never met anyone, no matter how intelligent, organized, and efficient, who doesn’t suffer from this problem when a break is so tantalizingly near, so I don’t feel too terrible. I will say, upfront, that I won’t be home again until January 3, so my updates may be non-existent/short/incomprehensible over the next two weeks. I blame that on family, friends, and the Christmas cookie coma I plan to enter this weekend (and by blame, I mean I cannot wait for that to happen). But before I jump off into the whirlwind of holidays, birthdays, and family reunions about to commence, I do want to say a few words about this book.

I love urban fantasy (it’s been a standby for me since I was in the sixth grade), and when I learned this weekend that there are people (people I love! In my own family!) who have never even heard of “urban fantasy” (oh yes – it’s true – I almost had a nervous breakdown trying to explain it), I want to give a fun book from the genre a moment in the spotlight. I think most fans of this particular genre would agree with me that it isn’t easy to find solid, interesting new authors to read.

I’m personally holding onto the newest Dresden File book (which I would call urban fantasy, but which wikipedia insists is “contemporary fantasy” – the wider umbrella under which “urban” falls) for that very reason. It’s a beloved series, and this fall has been too crazy for me to take time to really appreciate a much-anticipated book like that one. Nevertheless, I wanted something light and gritty, and Three Days to Dead fit the bill perfectly. The three strongest points in its favor? A fresh, original plot, strong writing, and a well-written female protagonist.

If you imagine that any of these things could be taken for granted, you may not be a fan of this genre, because let me tell you, we will endure a lot of crap to get a fix when necessary. Seriously. When I was growing up, there was one bookshelf at my local library with science fiction and fantasy, and I read it all – the good, the very bad, and the “I’m embarrassed that the library may still have these titles on record under my card.”

I’m not sorry, in retrospect, that I read some of those books, mainly because they gave me a barometer for the good stuff. It’s easy to forget how fortunate we are to have good books when we’re reading enjoyable, well-paced, clever stories like Meding’s. And while we may never suffer a shortage of great literary fiction or historical biographies, we have seen some dark times in the world of fantasy. We have had to slog through some books that should never have been published. We have had to praise the existence of the Kindle because finally (finally!) we could read some of those terrible books without anyone being the wiser.

It’s a painful thing, to be embarrassed by something so beloved, but it happens. Admittedly, I read almost all of my fantasy novels on Kindle for just that reason – even if the book itself is good, the cover usually gives me away with some unfortunate art. What can I say though? I love guilty pleasure books, and I always will. I’m only glad there are authors out there still willing to dip into the murky pool to get me what I want…