Thursday, May 30, 2013

What Matters in Jane Austen? by John Mullan

What Matters in Jane Austen?: Twenty Crucial Puzzles SolvedWhat Matters in Jane Austen?: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved by John Mullan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Format: Hardback
Original Publication Date: 2012
Genre(s): Nonfiction, Literary
Series: No

This enjoyable book by John Mullan is a collection of analytical essays, combing through Jane Austen’s books to answer various targeted questions. Each essay is roughly 15-20 pages long which took me, a relatively slow reader, about 20 minutes to read. The questions he asks of Austen’s books are aimed at revealing levels of detail and pattern that would likely have passed by the average reader. For example some of my favorite essays were:

Chapter 3: What do the Characters Call Each Other?
Chapter 9: Which Important Characters Never Speak in the Novels?
Chapter 13: How Much Money is Enough?
Chapter 19: When does Jane Austen Speak Directly to the Reader?
Chapter 20: How Experimental a Novelist was Jane Austen?

Mullan takes each question and points out the occurrences and significance in each of the novels. In some cases this means pointing out some things that would have been obvious to her contemporary readers like the discussion of money but are lost on the modern reader. Sometimes he is pointing out patterns and speculating about what Austen was inferring. He also sprinkles in some snippets from Austen’s life and letters to illustrate how her actual experiences support the interpretations presented. I’ll admit that there were a few instances I felt he might be attributing meaning to the meaningless but overwhelmingly this was a book that enriched my own appreciation of her books and made me want to re-read all of them.

I particularly enjoyed the final essay on Austen being an experimental writer. I feel like she is often dismissed as the chick lit of her day and that there is nothing challenging about her work. The usual defense against this is to point to her wit which was extraordinary and her insightful observation and portrayal of Regency era society. Mullan points out that she also used some techniques that were not common in novels of the day. For example her heroines are rarely perfect (with possibly the exception of Fanny Price), but are still likeable despite myriad flaws and misjudgments. She also, particularly in Emma, somewhat pioneered the idea of portraying as reality the worldview of her protagonist – we the reader believe the world to be ordered as the protagonist sees it even when she is quite wrong in her view. He points out that in Persuasion, the reader is not just in Anne’s head we are almost in her body at times, experiencing only what she physically experiences. He indicates that at the time this approach was unusual and distinctly Austen’s own style.

My biggest complaint is that I think I would have enjoyed this book most if I had been able to dip into it on a leisurely basis whenever I was craving a little jolt of Austen. Unfortunately, I got it from the library where there were many other holds so I had to rush through rather than savor.

Overall it was a pleasure.

So have you ever noticed some details in Austen's novels that you thought particularly brilliant? Do you ever dream of finding a man who has $10,000 a year?

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Monday, May 27, 2013

The Virgin in the Ice by Ellis Peters

The Virgin in the Ice (Chronicles of Brother Cadfael #6)The Virgin in the Ice by Ellis Peters
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Format: Audio
Narrated by: Vanessa Benjamin
Original Publication Date: 1982
Genre(s): Historical (Middle Ages), Mystery
Series: The Cadfael Chronicles, Book 6

The Civil War that has been threatening between King Stephen and Empress Maude starts in earnest, sending refugees fleeing in all directions. A trio of refugees; a young, noble sister and brother and a nun; have disappeared into the snowy English countryside of 1139.

As with all the books I’ve read in this series there are many threads to follow. I almost felt bad for Cadfael and Hugh having to track down all those threads in the bitter cold and snow. There are: a missing brother and sister (the Hugonins), a battered and amnesiac monk with a secret he doesn’t even know he carries, a defiled and murdered nun encased in ice, a mysterious knight roaming the countryside, strangely secretive and serving as guardian angel to the Hugonins and a band of brigands taking advantage of the chaos of war to pillage and plunder. As soon as one of Hungonins is found the other disappears. Somehow amidst all this Hugh and Cadfael stay calm and all the various threads are neatly tied by the end with plausible and interesting solutions. Cadfael even has something personally important that he didn’t expect or look for revealed to him.

The more I read of this series, the more impressed I become of Peters dexterous weaving of multiple story threads and her creation of a new cast of thousands for each book. Cadfael and a few other regulars keep us in familiar territory while the new characters make each book fresh. I know that many mystery series operate like this but I think she does a particularly good job of creating new characters that are distinct and believable. In this book in particular there were many mysteries to solve and revelations to be had so there is never a dull moment.

I very much enjoyed this one and it compares well with The Leper of St. Giles which was also exceptionally well done.

The narrator for this book changed from the two previous and to my mind not for the better. I got used to Vanessa Benjamin but really don’t like the voice she gives to Cadfael – I much preferred Johanna Ward’s attempt at a Welsh lilt for him. Many of Vanessa Benjamin’s men sound very much alike. Also the audio quality was not as good but that may have been related to my downloading it from the library.

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Saturday, May 25, 2013

Doctor Who - Season 6 - Episodes 7-13 

A Good Man Goes To War (Episode 7)

Rory and The Doctor set off on their mission to find and rescue Amy.  They start by recruiting a lot of old friends who owe the Doctor favors.  They are successful in rescuing Amy and she and Rory's newborn daughter Melody Pond.  Or so they think...The beginning of this one is a right hot mess and the pacing of the whole episode is bizarre.  The idea of the Doctor building an Army and waging war is a little out of character even if the take over is basically more theatrical than violent.  I was really having a hard time making connections between the lady with the eye patch, the headless monks, the marines and the Silence.  Isn't the Silence supposed to be behind all this malarkey?  But we see nor hear hide nor hair of them.  I was spoiled on the revelation at the end of the episode but I can imagine it was probably a stunner when it happened.  Grade: C

Let's Kill Hitler (Episode 8)

This is basically the beginning of River Song's story. A lot happens in this episode. Rory, Amy and the Doctor are reunited after a couple months apart and in roars Amy and Rory's best friend Mels of whom we've never seen or heard.  She hijacks the TARDIS and they travel back to 1938 and accidentally save Hitler from being punished by a time traveling justice seeking robot run by a lot of miniaturized humans.  Mels is shot and dying but reveals that she can regenerate and turns into River Song.  And we're still in the first 15 minutes...
There is almost too much going on in this episode but most of it I liked.  The robot run by lots of miniaturized human and policed by mechanical antibodies is cool even though its origin is never really explored or explained - it's just a plot device.  So time lords can change their age at will - did we know that?  Though I'm not a big River Song fan this is an interesting beginning to her story though I still kinda hate the whatever it is between she and the Doctor.  One little thing I liked was seeing the former companions even if they were just holograms:)  Grade: B

Night Terrors (Episode 9)

The Doctor gets the following message on his psychic paper: "Please save me from the monsters." He traces it to a down at the heels estate, where a little boy is terrified of the lift and the monsters living in his cupboard.  While the Doctor talks with the boy, the elevator sends Rory and Amy to a strange world they can't make heads or tales of.  In the end they all find themselves being tormented by creepy dolls in a ..."Refuge for dirty posh people who eat wooden food or..termites..giant termites that want to get on The Property Ladder" aka a dolls house.

This is a lovely creepy episode that plays on the terrors of little kids.  There's also a nice dash of pedophobia. And it's interesting that they have this one off episode about an unexpected, not normal kid wreaking havoc - nice connection to the larger storyline whether deliberate or not.   It's visually very interesting.  All in all this whole season has been very nice visually.  I am starting to get rather irritated with Matt Smith's super fast mumbly speak - I feel like I'm missing a good quarter of what he says. Grade: B+

The Girl Who Waited (Episode 10)

"What's the answer that won't get us killed?"  Always a wise questions to ask when you're traveling with the Doctor.  Amy is separated from Rory and the Doctor on a planet with two time streams, one fast, one slow. One week for Amy, is just moments for Rory and the Doctor.  The Doctor sends Rory out to track her down and when he does find her, 36 years have passed for her.

This is another one that is visually stunning.  Karen Gillan does an awesome job playing an older Amy who hasn't had any human contact for 36 years.  In general she does a great job in this episode.  This is also the Doctor's Dilemma in 43 minutes - It's a microcosm of what he always faces with his companions. He will always be forced to let them down and make the ugly choice.  I LOVE when Doctor Who is poignant and creative. There were tears during this one. The last line is Killer with a capital K. And as a non sequiter, I think I'm falling a little in love with Rory. Grade: A

The God Complex (Episode 11)

aka Hotel California - You can check out anytime you like but you can never leave.  Our fearless Trio find themselves in a cheesy and demonic 1980's hotel.  There are a few other folks there as well - 3 humans and an alien from a planet with the distinction of being the most invaded.  Each person has a room for them that has their own personal worst nightmare. And the TARDIS has disappeared!  Even more freaky... "It's amazing that you've just come up with a theory that's even more insane then what's actually happening.."  suddenly Rory's getting all the great lines.

This is one of those episodes that swings between absurdly comical and holy buckets of creepy.  I suspect there's also some scathing commentary on organized religion hidden in there. There's a nice hidden message that faith in the Doctor will get you consumed.  It is again the Doctor's dilemma - how he is always the undoing of his companions. It's a nice development of the Doctor.  And again the episode's design is awesome - they've really outdone themselves this series. In the end the Doctor tries to do the right thing though somehow I doubt it will stand. And leaving with another lovely Rory quote.  "We've forgotten that not all victories are about saving the universe." Grade: B+

Closing Time (Episode 12)

The Doctor shows up to say hello to Craig (from the series 5 episode The Lodger) and he and Sophie's baby Stormaggedon Dark Lord of All aka Alfie.  During this somewhat awkward visit The Doctor notices some electrical fluctuations and his savior complex kicks in.  So he get's a job at a department store, in the toys section of course. And apparently Amy's become a model in the meantime. Hmm...

Craig is from one of the episodes that I actually liked in Series 5 so I was excited to see him again.  As with the original episode this is mostly played for laughs and it works well.  The scene where the Doctor tries to distract Craig by declaring his love is pretty hilarious.  The Doctor is also feeling a little nostalgic about his life as he believes it's coming to an end.  It has a sappy, sentimental but lovely Doctor Who type ending.  And I wish I could have The Doctor's cleaning service. And we're back where we started with series 6...interesting. This season has been really nicely constructed though I don't really want to think to hard about the timeline...I'll just settle for timey wimey stuff happens. Grade: B+

The Wedding of River Song (Episode 13)

We open in an alternate universe where Winston Churchill is the Holy Roman Empire, pterodacyls and hot air balloon carried cars float in the sky and all history has been smooshed into one moment; 5:02 pm on April the 22nd.  Then we are following the Doctor as he travels trying to discover why the Silence believe he has to die. The Doctor's attitude can be summed up thus: to the Doctor: "Time catches up with us all Doctor."  The Doctor: "But it's never laid a glove on me." And we're back at Lake Silencio in Utah. And we find out why River has been in jail since we've met her. 

Despite feeling a little queasy whenever I thought too hard about how things happened, I did very much enjoy it.  I thought it was head and shoulders above the Series 5 finale and sets up some interesting story lines for Series 7.  It's a little all over the place but it does pull all the threads together by the end in a way that more or less makes sense.  Overall a nice wrap up to a really excellent season. Grade: B

Series 6 Review

Well color me very pleasantly surprised and very happy to be surprised too.  After my lackluster response to Series 5 I thought I was done with Doctor Who which was definitely pretty sad in a first world problem sort of way.  But it turns out Series 5 just kind of sucked! Who knew!  Glad to see the show runner's are hitting their stride and now I am super anxious to see Series 7.  Which will be a very long time from now. Sigh... I do wish they worked on a faster time frame.

 The biggest positive surprise was that I finally warmed up to Amy and Rory.  I actively disliked Amy and she's still not my favorite companion, but her obvious moments of devotion to Rory and some particularly nice acting by Karen Gillan (particularly in The Girl Who Waited) stole a tiny little sliver of my heart.  I had been indifferent to Rory but, especially in the second half of the series, he really developed some personality outside of lovesick puppy dog following Amy.  I really liked him by the end of the series.

And then there's River Song.  In this series, her character had more of a point and was really integral to the through line so I got to a point where I was pretty tolerant of her.  And while I didn't really get the point of "the marriage" it didn't fill me with rage either because it was such a brief and secondary event. I definitely feel like her character arc has come full circle though and I do hope we are pretty much done with her.   

My favorite episodes from this season in chronological order: The Curse of the Black Spot (episode 3), The Doctor's Wife (Episode 4) and The Girl Who Waited (Episode 10). It's worth noting that there wasn't a single episode I didn't like.  All in all an impressive season!

Some unanswered questions I'm left with: How does River Song travel through time without a TARDIS?  Can Time Lords travel through time without a TARDIS? Oh yea and that question about changing their age at will?  Am I the last person to know they can do these things? And most importantly what did you think of Series 6?  What was your favorite episode(s)?  Are there any one-off characters you wish the Doctor would go back and visit?  When writing out The Doctor is the "the" capitalized or not?

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Leper of St. Giles by Ellis Peters

The Leper of Saint Giles (Chronicles of Brother Cadfael #5)The Leper of Saint Giles by Ellis Peters
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Abbey at Shrewsbury is to host the middle ages equivalent of the celebrity wedding of the year, between a consequential but much older lord and a highly manipulated young woman of great property. While the two to be wed care little for each other, the groom and the bride's guardians (her Aunt and Uncle) see the material advantages. The bride's affections and happiness are engaged elsewhere with a young squire in her groom-to-be's household. When the groom doesn't show up for his wedding and is found dead in the woods things start to become tricky. Meanwhile at the local leper colony, there is a particularly mysterious newcomer who takes a great interest in the hullabaloo at the Abbey.

This is a lovely convoluted mystery with links to the crusades and which involves a mysterious and awesome mistresses and some wicked guardians. It's a great and detailed plot with plenty of nuance even if the solution at the end is somewhat reminiscent of a Scooby Doo or Poirot mystery where all is unraveled and revealed in a big flourish.

Again we have a large new cast to get acquainted with and Peters makes it easy to distinguish and get to know them. Joscelin Lucy is a particularly engaging young hero who is believably young and somewhat self-consciously chivalrous. We see the entrance of the hapless Brother Oswin who plagues Cadfael as his assistant and Peters descriptions of his enthusiasm and clumsiness are hilarious. The denizens of the Leper colony that we meet are equally charming especially the little boy Bran and the mysterious Lazarus.

It's interesting to see how Lepers were treated in Medieval times when the causes of the disease were not understood and the effects were devastating and often deadly. Considering the amount of fear and disgust associated with lepers it is amazing that colonies for their care existed and emphasizes the bravery of the uninfected souls that chose to care for them. Peters uses this to her advantage - Joscelin's acceptance and willingness to move amongst these folks are a testament to his strength of character.

The narration by Johanna Ward is again excellent.

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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Doctor Who - Season 6 - Episodes 1-6

 File:Doctor Who Series 6.png

 Because Doctor Who is amongst my favoritest TV shows of all time, I've been incredibly sad to have trouble connecting with the reboot starting with Matt Smith as Doctor #11.  A re-watch of season 5 helped me develop an appreciation for Matt Smith but it did not improve my feelings for Amy Pond or River Song.

So, the point of all that rambling is to say I've been slow to watch Season 6.  But buzz about the upcoming 50th Anniversary episode this November (and the knowledge that Amy is no longer the companion in Series 7), has given me a little shove in the Season 6 direction. I'll write about each episode in turn and then try to summarize my overall feelings about the season halfway through and then the second half and feelings on the whole shebang in a second post. Here goes:


The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon (Eps 1 and 2)

The Majority of the action in these two episodes takes place in the U.S. during 1969. Amy, Rory, River Song, and a random ex-FBI Agent receive Tardis Blue invitations with a date, time and coordinates. When they get there they run into the Doctor who announces they will be heading to 1969 but he doesn't say why. This is definitely one of the more convoluted and mysterious plots which works best the less you know so I'll leave it at that vague point.

I liked all the twists and turns in this one and it sets up the big bad for the near future of the series really well. The Silence are seriously creepy. It also introduces and leaves untied a lot of loose ends which will be slowly developed and revealed throughout the season. I was also quite impressed that the plot was subtly started in Season 5 - nice long-term plotting! My favorite moment was probably the Doctor stumbling unintentionally and clandestinely into the Oval Office ("I was looking for the oblong room!") - It is played really well by Matt Smith. Because I'm not a River Song fan, I really didn't like all the flirty flirty and angst with the Doctor. But overall this was a great two part season opener - An improvement over Season 5's two parters.
Grade: B+

Curse of the Black Spot (Episode 3)

Pirates! Doctor Who and PIRATES! You had me at Pirates.  "Yo ho ho. Erm..Or does no one actually say that?" The Tardis is drawn by a distress signal to a 17th century pirate ship in the middle of a becalmed sea that is being terrorized by a Siren.  As soon as anybody on the ship is injured in any way they are marked with a black spot and the Siren appears and zaps them away with her touch.

I really liked this episode!  It's a fun one-off. The solution to who/what the siren is, was clever.  And did I mention there are pirates?  Things I liked - Pirates!  And all the Doctor's fun with the pirate cliches.  The one scene I didn't care for was CPR on Rory - it was manipulative and overdone and unoriginal and ugh.  However, so far I'm really enjoying Season 6... Grade: A

The Doctor's Wife (Episode 4)

 The episode starts off with The Doctor getting mail!  It's a distress signal from another Time Lord called The Corsair.  In response, The Doctor, Amy, and Rory rush off to a pocket of the universe that's been isolated from the regular universe and they encounter some very strange folk.  In the end this is a love story between the TARDIS and her Doctor...Awww....

It's like the delicious child produced in a union between Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton.  Love, love, love the soul of the TARDIS personified. The actress who plays her was lovely. We get to see more of the Tardis' innards and its surprisingly boring. I love that the TARDIS thinks Rory is the pretty one.  I love the Doctor's "excitement" about his TARDIS being a Lady (whose name is Sexy). And finally I love the TARDIS kicking some ass!  If you can't tell I very much like this one!  And I've just figured out why  - it was written by Neil Gaiman! Grade: A+

 The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People (Episode 5 and 6)

This an episode ala the small-crew-trapped-in-an-out-of-the-way-place-and-bad-things-start-going-down which they have in every series (The Time of Angels and Flesh and Stone in series 5, Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead in series 4, 42 in series 3, The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit in series 2, Bad Wolf and Parting of The Ways in Season 1).  This time the out of the way place is a medieval monastery on an island of future Earth where a small group of people are using sentient Doppelgangers of themselves to mine an extremely caustic acid.  When a solar storm hits there are suddenly two of everyone and conflict is inevitable.

Doctor Who frequently likes to question what makes a sentient being  - what is a person with worth of their own (New Earth from series 2 is one example that comes quickly to mind). These two episodes do an okay but not great job of addressing the question because basically the humans and the doppelgangers are equally corrupt.  I liked that Rory got to be a little independent and wasn't trailing after Amy like a lovesick puppy the whole time even if he was pretty ineffectual. Nice twist at the end and the final scene is properly scary! Grade: B

Well at this point my relief is HUGE.  I thought I was done with Doctor Who but no such tragedy.  Thus far Series 6 has been fantastic even with Amy Pond and River Song. Can't wait to see what the second half of Series 6 has to offer.

What was your favorite episode in this first half of series 6 and why? Did you have the same lack of enthusiasm for series 5 as I did?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and Honey (Glamourist Histories, #1)Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a book I enjoyed but grudgingly and against my better judgment. It seemed like the product of some serious fangirling of Jane Austen and a cute idea to weave in a fantastical element to an Austenesque landscape. There’s nothing wrong with that! Unfortunately, while I appreciated and even somewhat enjoyed the attempt I think overall it was pretty weakly done.

Synopsis: Jane Ellsworth lives quietly as a spinster with her beautiful younger sister Melody, silly Mother and affectionate father in Regency era England. She is very plain in appearance however, as Austen would say, she is a very accomplished young lady; adept with music, painting and conjuring glamours. In this mirror of the real Regency England, people can perform bits of magic and it is especially prized in ladies who use it to accessorize and make their homes more comfortable. As the story opens, Jane is secretly pining after the Ellsworth’s neighbor, Mr. Dunkirk, but she has no hope of him as she competing for his affections with her lively and attractive younger sister Melody. There’s a lot of misunderstanding and jealousy all around. Throw into this mix two additional young people, new to the neighborhood - Mr. Dunkirk’s younger sister Beth whom Jane becomes quite friendly with and a dashing Naval officer Captain Livingston, nephew to the local Viscountess who sets everyone’s hearts aflutter – and you have a stew of romantic drama. There’s also the enigmatic Mr. Vincent, a renowned glamourist who is hired by the Viscountess to create a one of a kind glamural in her home. He doesn’t seem to like Jane much and his opinion of her talent with glamour is ambiguous.

It is actually quite hard to summarize the plot of the novel as it follows the Austen model of focusing primarily on the everyday things that happen between people and no grand plot.

Things I didn’t like:
1)The acknowledgements say that the writing of the book was inspired by Austen but it comes a little too close to “ripping off” Austen. Almost all the characters have an EASILY recognized counterpart in Austen. Jane is Elinor Dashwood at least with her sense of decorum and propriety and repressed emotions but she shows a great deal less sense then Elinor. Melody Ellsworth is a combination of all the worst parts of Marianne Dashwood and Lydia Bennet – and yes she is, as can be imagined, EXTREMELY annoying and difficult to sympathize with. Beth Dunkirk is a repeat of Marianne Dashwood and perhaps a dash of Georgiana Darcy. Captain Livingston is a combination Willoughby and Frank Churchhill. Mrs. Ellsworth is Mrs. Bennett. You get the picture. And if you are a reader of Austen you will have no problem discerning where the story is leading.
2)The language is forced, like the author was trying too hard to mimic Austen and not quite getting it right.
3)The ending is rushed - no resolution with the Dunkirks, Jane’s romance is wrapped up with a rather false note of intimacy and affection between Jane and her chosen.
4)Missed opportunity with Jane and Melody’s relationship which could have been rich and interesting. One sister jealous of the other’s beauty the other jealous of the one’s copious talents. Instead it was just annoying.
5) With all the Austenesque stuff going on here the book was not funny - it didn't have the twinkling levity or the depth for that matter of Austen.

Things I liked:
1)I liked the idea of glamour and thought the idea was developed well. The discussions of art and the need of passion and emotion to create great art. Technique is less important than vision and feeling.
2)That Jane’s plainness is never backed away from. She’s not an ugly duckling who blossoms into a swan. She’s just Jane.

However, despite the fact that my dislike list is longer than my like list, I did enjoy it and am curious enough to move on to book 2 of the series. Interestingly, the last few rushed pages of this book make it clear that it was likely not intended to be the first in a series, so it will be interesting to see how well it morphs. 2.5 stars out of 5.

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Sunday, May 19, 2013

St. Peter's Fair by Ellis Peters

St. Peter's Fair (Chronicles of Brother Cadfael #4)St. Peter's Fair by Ellis Peters
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

St. Peter’s Fair is the fourth book in the popular Medieval mystery series featuring Benedictine Monk Brother Cadfael. As a child, my father was a huge fan of these books and the TV series based on the books starring Derek Jacobi as Brother Cadfael. In fact I remember (vaguely) visiting the town of Shrewsbury, where the books are set, on one of our trips to England because of his interest in the series. I sadly remember very little of Shrewsbury but I do have fond memories of the TV series and in fact have recently been re-watching on Netflix.

So I was glad to find the audio version of much of Ellis Peters' series offered by my local library. Unfortunately they did not have volumes 1-3, so despite the fact that I normally HATE to read a series out of order I went ahead and checked this out hoping my familiarity with TV series would help fill in any gaps. In the end while I would have preferred to start with book one, I in no way felt lost or that I had missed out on crucial character development. It’s obvious that one of the earlier books introduced Hugh Beringar to his wife and I did feel sorry to have not had that background but it wasn’t a huge impediment as Peters does a good job weaving in Hugh and his wife and the nature of their relationship.

Synopsis: Merchants from all over England and Wales are gathering in Shrewsbury for St. Peter’s Fair, a 3 day bazaar that benefits the Abbey. Hanging over the fair are two conflicts: 1) the townsfolk are upset not to be included in the profits of the fair as the town has recently been damaged by warfare, and 2) said warfare between King Stephen and Empress Maude is waging over the throne of England and has people taking sides or ducking to stay out of the way. Pretty immediately a fight breaks out between townsfolk and merchants with merchant Thomas of Bristol and young townsperson Philip Corverser (?) being at the epicenter. When the Thomas of Bristol is found murdered, suspicion rests on the quickly focuses on Philip but Cadfael suspects that something more complex is afoot. He must figure out what is going on quickly, with the help of Hugh Beringar, because Thomas of Bristol’s beautiful and clever niece seems to be at the eye of the storm.

I highly enjoyed the book. Peters had to manage a pretty large cast of characters and she does this deftly I think. There were times I briefly could not match the rather involved names with the “face” per se but her characters were distinct enough the confusion was always very momentary and I’m not sure it would have even been an issue if I had been reading rather than listening. Each character has a part to play in a convoluted mystery involving many red herrings and political intrigue. Convoluted it as it was, I did figure out the solution fairly early but I can’t say for sure that this wasn’t because of watching the TV program.

I very much appreciated the depiction of life in Medieval England which I think is portrayed naturally and innately as part of the narrative. Facts and the history of the time are not awkwardly shoehorned in but are simply woven into the story for the readers to absorb without really registering its happening. This book is very character focused –– and it is through the characters - their dress and actions – that most of the setting comes to life.

The real strength of the book and the series is Cadfael. He’s had an interesting life before entering the monastery and in many ways relishes the quiet routine of a monk. However, his sharp and endlessly curious mind paired with a strong sense of compassion and conscience draw him into the intrigues that seem to happen on a quite regular schedule at or near the Abbey. Cadfael’s talent is for observing and reading people He, and thence the book, radiates a wise, peaceful assurance – you feel you are in good hands and so you are with Ellis Peters.

The choice of a female narrator for a book whose main protagonist is male could be odd but Johanna Ward does a great job. She has a lovely voice and inflects it well. I appreciate her attempt, mostly successful, at rendering Cadfael’s Welsh accent as that was not something Derek Jacobi tried. I highly recommend listening to this while doing yard work or puttering about in the garden - possibly my favorite parts of the book are the descriptions of the herb gardens and Cadfael’s apothecary.

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Saturday, May 18, 2013

Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg

Smilla's Sense of SnowSmilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Synopsis: When a small Inuit boy, Isaiah is found dead after having fallen off the roof of her apartment building, Smilla suspects his death was not an accident. The half Inuit Smilla had become very close to the boy and she becomes obsessed with finding the truth about his death.

In a weird way it reminded me of the first X-files movie with Smilla stepping in as the obsessed Mulder. Like Mulder, she is bold, impulsive and reckless in her pursuit of the truth and of course there’s a final journey into the Arctic Circle. I was half expecting, throughout the book, for Aliens to be waiting at the end and interestingly that turned out to be not too far off.

It has a unique tone. I’d probably describe it as a mystery/thriller but it’s like a thriller on mute – all the action and high emotion being viewed through a layer of ice which in turn evokes the cold forbidding environment of Denmark and Greenland. Everything cold and moving slowly and bluntly forward; the tension creeping up inexorably as it draws towards the end. The biggest surprise is the numerous bursts of humor - still understated and dry but at times laugh out loud funny and absurd. Despite an overall air of abstraction everything seems very real – the characters, the settings, the things that happen. It’s this strange contradictory layering that sets the book apart.

Smilla also lends the story her unique personality. She seems like someone who is normally very detached from the world, very confused about her place in it, until the death of Isaiah awakens a fierce drive in her. Her very detachment and rebellion against authority make her the perfect pursuer of justice – she is cowed by no one and nothing, though she is usually shaking in her shoes. And then there’s the Mechanic, who loved Isaiah too, and who slips under her emotional defenses. The Mechanic’s motivations are never really clear. I suppose you could say he’s conflicted but it becomes unbelievable that he continues to cooperate as damning evidence and personal danger mount.

It has a strange, unfinished ending which somehow fits the book. I’m not sure I ever grasped the significance of what was found and what motivated the villains of the story. How were the meteorite and the mutated arctic worm linked and what was the significance? I’m not sure but I was not overly disappointed as it fit.

It was a satisfying read; thought-provoking, funny, eventually compelling and incredibly atmospheric. It wasn’t a page-turner for me but I was engaged with the mystery. Most important is Smilla, which made this book so unique and I think will ensure that it stays with me for a long time.

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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Garden Update - April 15, 2013

Yesterday it was 100 freakin' degrees here in central Iowa.  Less then 2 weeks ago we had 6" of snow.  I think mother nature has lost her ever-livin' mind, bless her poor mad self.  The garden is profoundly confused but doing okay for the moment. 

Rudy inspects the garden. Newly planted tomatoes look a.okay.  Also put in the cucumber seeds and the beets and carrots are just starting to look like real plants to the right. Sugar Snap Peas are starting to climb. Also planted here is spinach, lettuce, Lacinato kale, and basil.

6 peppers  - three Tolli's Sweet and three Pimentos. The left part of bed is planted to Empress beans.

Blueberry plants

Mostly Garlic with some shallots mixed in.  Looking sturdy but a little anemic. Added some organic fertilizer and  composted manure today to try and perk them up, hopefully not too late. Though you can't see them well, the chives and tarragon I planted this weekend are well and the rose is flourishing.  I decide this part of the herb garden would be mostly culinary. If you're wondering how to get the bare-dirt-desert-with-occassional-grass-tussocks look for your yard I recommend two big dogs in a small yard:0).

In the foreground  planted some chard, Kale and spinach a couple weeks ago - the only thing coming up is the spinach. Unfortunately I had dumped a bag of leftover top soil on this part of the bed and its forming a sort of crust whenever it dries even a little bit so I may scrape it off and replant though too many more 100 degree days will put the kibosh on that.  The half of the bed closer to the arbor is the other half of my herb garden which will be primarily tea, fragrance and bloom oriented.  You can't tell but I have some newly planted mint, chamomile, hyssop, bee balm, Echinacea, and butterfly milkweed and a pot of lavender.There is also a climbing rose planted here but I really don't think it gets enough sun.
All that's left to plant are my pots.  I have a couple varieties of hot peppers and a couple more tomato plants to put in those. 

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Daughter of Smoke & Bone (Daughter of Smoke & Bone, #1)Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was really excited to read this book as it had been raved about by a couple of different blog/podcast sources. So I was especially disappointed that in the end, while I completely understand the praise heaped on it, I did not enjoy it.

It has generally been touted as being a cut above the average young adult fantasy and having read it I understand fully where these assessments come from. It is an exceptionally imaginative and creatively wrought story and world. The story is crafted perfectly, creating a frustration in the first half of the book that is then fully satisfied in the second half while still leaving the reader on a cliffhanger at the end. The imagery is especially vibrant – the world is easy to picture in your mind’s eye despite the fantastical settings. There are lots of small bits of wit and whimsy like the characters fanciful musings on Papilio stomachus – the butterflies in your stomach that respond beyond your control to certain members of the opposite sex. The dilemmas, issues and situations that are dealt with are thought-provoking. There is no clear right or wrong, bad or good – things are gray as they frequently are in reality. The monsters can be lovable, the angels can be right bastards.

Unfortunately, I had a few real problems with the book which undermined my enjoyment of the good stuff to the point that I had to take lengthy breaks from listening because of irritation and/or boredom.

My biggest problems is very likely my own special issue so take it with a grain of salt. And I’m going to explain in terms of Doctor Who. In season 3 of (new) Doctor Who, the Doctor gets a new companion named Martha. Martha is a lovely person and she is a loyal and brave companion. But I felt pretty meh about her. Why? Because Martha already had a lot going for her: she was stunningly beautiful, smart, young, about to get her medical degree, from an upper middle class family who she is close with despite some relatively ordinary dysfunctionality. And on top of all these blessings she also gets to be one of the chosen few to have adventures with the Doctor. This type of character whether it be in TV, movies or books, is not usually compelling for me…at all. I’m going to call it the Martha complex. I am, admittedly boringly, a bigger fan of stories that feature the interesting but average girl (or guy) who because of unusual circumstances or one random choice, ends up getting the opportunity to be their best self, hidden at their core and experience amazing adventures. I know, it’s clichéd but it is what works for me. And unfortunately for me, Karou suffers from the Martha complex. She’s stunningly and uniquely beautiful, and though she’s just had her wee teenaged heart betrayed by her stunningly handsome boyfriend, he is still so besotted with her that he is making all sorts of grand gestures to try and woo her back. She’s a talented artist who is attending art school in Prague, she’s popular and well liked by everyone, she’s funky, unique and cool, she’s funny and charming and finally she has access to this whole other magical world – i.e. she’s special. And let’s not forget that she is humble, down to earth, and has a heart of gold which would never allow her to do the wrong thing in a situation. In a word, Karou is too perfect. And I do understand that my complaint is odd considering that most of what happens to her is, in fact, bad, but the way my brain works, Karou is having an extraordinary life because she is extraordinary. How boring. I was actually more intrigued by her sister Chiro but we are told in no uncertain terms that Chiro is not worth even the tiniest bit of sympathy because she’s ugly and has a weak soul. Basically I think I prefer a story from the ugly stepsister’s viewpoint, the people with weaknesses and flaws who do morally suspect things but who also find redemption.

The boredom with Karou and the story intensified when the romance got going. Karou’s soul-mated love is, of course, an otherworldy hot angel dude. There is a particularly egregious case of insta-love. There is initially some hint of mystery and perhaps further explanation of their innate attraction but nope, when we get the backstory, it’s still insta-love. I found Akiva (hot angel dude) personality-less and as soon as he appears and the cosmic love stars start exploding, all the life got sucked right out of the book for me. The descriptions of Akiva and Karou’s love are florid, overwrought and take up an excessive amount of the narrative. It was during the times that their "relationship" took center stage that I felt the need to take extensive breaks.

So how to rate this one? I’m giving it two stars though I feel bad about it as it has a lot of great things going for it. But the fact that my irritation caused me to stop reading at points and that I will not be continuing with the series I can’t really give it a three and say I liked it. Finally, I’ll emphasize again that the above issues that I had, may be pretty special to me so if you don’t get too worked up about overly perfect characters and true love that appears without a word exchanged, but you do really like a strong and creative story then go for it – I think you’ll love it. However if you have a strong negative reaction to Mary Sue-type characters, you may want to give this one a pass.

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Monday, May 13, 2013

Love in the Afternoon by Lisa Kleypas

I’m a wildlife biologist by profession.  I have two dogs and a cat and my fondest wish is to own a small acreage someday so I can have a few Llamas, chickens, horses and a whole bunch more dogs.  So it will be no surprise that throughout all the Hathaway books I’ve felt a certain affinity with Beatrix. The way Kleypas wrote her in all the earlier books was great – funny, kind-hearted, naturally wise and self-contained, and not in a boring way like Win.  I was really looking forward to this book. So, I was pretty much setting myself up for disappointment.  Not that I was too disappointed but I really wanted it to be AMAZING and it was just good. The match chosen for Beatrix is Christopher Phelan, a conventional and rather shallow young man who is changed by two years in the Crimean War.  In fact one might say that he’s a wounded animal - like all the animals Beatrix takes in.  And that right there is where a little bit of the disappointment comes in – an obvious and somewhat un-fun choice for Beatrix.  A fun choice might have been a rakish, urbane fellow who is reformed by Beatrix’s whimsical nature and learns to embrace nature and dirt?  I don’t know - Lisa Kleypas is the mistress here and she probably knows best but I didn’t love that this book ends up being quite a bit darker than the others in the series.  Kind of a bummer for fun Bea’s story. 

There was also a shade of disappointment in that I really want the characters I love to be pursued and courted and wooed and adored and that’s not quite how this book rolls. The two develop a bond when Beatrix responds to a letter he's written to her frivolous friend, Prudence.  His letter cries out for response but Prudence can't be bothered so Beatrix does so in her stead.  They continue to exchange increasingly personal letters, and fall in love with Christopher never knowing it is not Prudence writing to him.  Upon his return he struggles with the demons that plague him from the war and resolves to find and marry Prudence while Beatrix agonizes.  Eventually the subterfuge is revealed and while Christopher loves Beatrix,  he’s too tied up in his inner struggles to really pursue her and in fact he tries, for her sake, to refuse to marry her.  The main pursuer here, the one who pushes the relationship forward and does most of the hard work, is Beatrix and that wasn’t what I wanted for her. 

Don’t get me wrong, Christopher is definitely appealing, and the way he (eventually) loves Beatrix is heart-meltingly adorable.   In fact, (and here’s disappointment #3) the more annoying of the pair is Beatrix who for most of the book acts rather juvenile.  I found myself irritated with her pushy chatterbox routine more than once.  It struck me that, like Cam, Beatrix might work better as secondary character then she does in her own book hence even more disappointment. 

For all that complaining and…disappointment I still enjoyed it well enough.  I liked it better than Married by Morning (book 4 in the series), I just wish it had been amazing like Beatrix.  3 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Married by Morning by Lisa Kleypas
Married by Morning is the fourth installment in Lisa Kleypas’ Hathaway series and focuses on the romance of Leo, Lord Ramsay and Catherine Marks, hired companion to Beatrix and Poppy Hathaway.  It can be a challenge to write a romance novel from the perspective of a male character, as male readers aren’t the target audience, so Kleypas attempts to deal with this difficulty by matching Leo with a character who has been present in the last two books and therefore operates as almost a fifth sister.

I’m not sure I can give this book a fair shake.  As I will mention in my review of Love in the Afternoon, I was anxious to get to Beatrix’s book and I am also usually pretty strict about not reading series books out of order.  But I broke down and began listening, and indeed finished listening, Love in the Afternoon while I was still in the midst of reading Married by Morning.  So I have to admit it got short shrift and because it wasn’t leading up to another book I was eagerly anticipating anymore, I got rather bored with it.  So it was a distracted reading, but I think the fact that it didn’t capture my attention in its own right is fair commentary.

The bottom line is that it had some things that I really liked and it had a lot of things I didn’t like.  On the plus side, I like Leo who could be the wittiest of the Hathaways, and there are some really great small scenes in the book.  The kissing game where Leo demonstrates to Marks (as he calls her) that the brain has no place in romance/love is one of the best scenes of the whole series. Leo’s courting of Catherine, particularly in the last quarter of the book is some of the most romantic and charming of the series. I enjoyed seeing Harry and Poppy again. Ummm…I liked that the ‘L’ word wasn’t bandied about too carelessly and the characters relationship had been developing in the background for a couple books?  And Marks having a mysterious past that keeps her in disguise is quite interesting.

The negative?  This book felt more contrived then the others – situations orchestrated clumsily to bring the two lovers together.  I don’t know if the situations were actually more contrived or I just wasn’t as engaged so I noticed more often.  The biggest disappointment is Catherine who despite being characterized in the other books and indeed parts of this book as a self-sufficient, brave, no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners sort of woman, often devolves into an absolute ninny. She needs not one man to save her but two. Her “disturbing” past is very gothic and its consequences that unfold in this book make little to no sense.  The final verdict was that I didn’t like this pairing very much.  I wish Catherine had been feistier and challenged Leo throughout. I think we are meant to believe that that is indeed the nature of their relationship but if so I didn’t buy it. 

So I give this one a mixed review. It had some really nice scenes and romance but because I couldn’t fully embrace the featured couple, these scenes were almost annoying as I wished they had been given to a worthier pair.  Mostly I just felt pretty blah about it without any real strong feelings either way.  For the overall series this is my least favorite, followed by Seduce me at Sunrise, Love in the Afternoon, Mine Till Midnight and finally my favorite would be Tempt me at Twilight which is interesting considering Poppy was the least distinct of the sisters.  I would recommend the series for anyone who likes Regency romances. I'd give this particular book 2.5 stars out of 5.

Have you read this one?  How does Leo rank among Paramours?  What did you think of Catherine’s tragic past and the fallout from that in the form of her character and the situations that arise in the book?  Did you like Catherine as Leo’s love interest?

Friday, May 10, 2013

Tempt Me at Twilight by Lisa Kleypas

The start of this book finds the heroine chasing a ferret through the winding halls of an exclusive Regency era London hotel.  As one does. The heroine is, of course, Poppy Hathaway, third of the Hathaway sisters, and the ferret is her sister Beatrix’s pet, Dodger, who enjoys being mischievous.  Poppy is in her third London season and she has finally met someone she likes and who likes her back.  Dodger has stolen a letter from her paramour which if made public would cause problems for the clandestine couple.  So Poppy pursues the ferret into the service hallways of the hotel and runs smack dab into a handsome stranger who turns out to be the Hotel’s enigmatic owner Harry Rutledge.  In that moment, though neither realizes it, their fates are sealed.

Poppy Hathaway is 23 and the third of the Hathaway sisters.  While Poppy loves and is close to her unconventional family, she’s had enough of the drama that comes with being a Hathaway.  In books 1 and 2 of the series, both of her older sisters were compromised before marrying their Gypsy husbands – scandalous indeed – and Poppy wants nothing of the sort for herself.  Unfortunately, Poppy herself isn’t your typical regency era maiden.  She’s smart and educated and growing up she was encouraged to talk, debate and speak her mind.  She doesn’t really like or know how to make small talk so despite being beautiful she confounds all the eligible men which is okay because she doesn’t really like them much either.  In her third season, she thinks she has finally found someone whom she cares for and who loves her back.  The only problem is that he is reluctant to declare for her and make their relationship official and public - the Hathaway unconventionality getting in the way.

Harry Rutledge is a thirty-something American who took London by storm ten years prior.  While sought after for his restless intelligence, wealth and competence, no one really knows his story and Harry keeps everyone at arm’s length and truly believes he is happiest that way.  He has been emotionally isolated all his life and doesn’t really understand the concept of love and is appalled at the idea that he might need someone else.  His emotional distance has also encouraged a ruthless character which he puts to good use when he decides that he will have Poppy as his wife.  While simultaneously being charming and manipulative, he maneuvers Poppy away from the man she loves and forces her to the Altar with him but not before she becomes aware of his machinations.

So that’s how Poppy’s marriage begins, with her wondering what kind of monster she’s married, while Harry is surprised that he is not just content to have Poppy, he actually wants her to want him. 

I think this is my favorite thus far in the Hathaway series.  I really enjoy the hero/villain type like Harry – he reminds of Rhett Butler: sardonic and charming, emotions hidden deep under a façade of insouciance.   I adored him.  The way Poppy and he figure each other out in the end is maybe a little easy but I found it satisfying nonetheless.  Kleypas as always has a great sense of humor and she is really great at writing dialogue and setting up scenes. Poppy is especially good at communicating and making intelligent conversation.  As Harry observes - the thing that made her struggle on the marriage market as a single woman actually is her greatest charm as a married woman. She also did a great job in this book knowing exactly why her two lovers go together well which I think was perhaps missing a little in book 2 between Winn and Merripen whose connection seemed more mystical than anything else.  I also liked the setting of the hotel and the addition of the charismatic hotel staff. 

Furthermore, as long as the quality keeps up through book 5, I think this book may have solidified this series as my favorite regency era series by a modern author.  The reason is The Hathaways – I adore them and really enjoy seeing all of them in each of the books.  Beatrix and her critters, her folksy wisdom, her disregard for social convention; Leo’s droll wit; Cam’s easygoing and protective leadership; Amelia as mother hen.  They are a blast to hang out with and I hope the spark doesn’t ebb before the end as it has in other promising series (..ahem.. Julia Quinn’s Bridgertons).  Long live the Hathaways!

A number of people favor Richard Armitage as the model for Harry – what do you think?What's your favorite "type" of hero in a romance novel?