Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Magicians and Mrs. Quent

The Magicians and Mrs. Quent (Mrs. Quent, #1)The Magicians and Mrs. Quent by Galen Beckett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Format: Hardback (from library)
Narrated By: NA
Original Publication Year: 2008
Genre(s): Fantasy, Historical
Series: Mrs. Quent # 1
Awards: None

I’ve been reading a couple of books lately that are taking me forever to read. It’s not always the book’s fault - sometimes it has more to do with my mood and whether the book is fitting it. The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is a book that combines fantasy, historical fiction, romance and strong elements of the English classics. I quite honestly can’t imagine ever not being in the mood for a book with all of that. So I’m pretty sure the fact that it took me so long to get through the book had more to do with the book then my reading mood.

It is a book in three parts with each part attempting to mimic some of the English classics. Section 1 - Jane Austen, Section 2 - Jane Eyre, and Section 3 - Charles Dickens. It is also presented from three different character’s perspectives. Ivy Lockwell who lives a shabby genteel sort of existence with her mother, two sisters, and her mentally debilitated father, is the primary character present in all three sections. She is driven by trying to find a cure for her father’s mental illness which was the result of a magical event gone wrong. While Ivy’s was my favorite of the three perspectives my liking for her had some limits. She is definitely of the Elinor Dashwood type of heroine – a tower of strength but always proper and in control of herself, practical, abhorrent of any impropriety or outward emotion. I find characters such as this admirable but I also find it hard to really feel close to or like them too well. Dashton Rafferdy is a Lord’s son several stations above Ivy and does his best to be droll and responsible for nothing. Eldyn Garritt is a friend of Rafferdy’s who is struggling to make ends meet for he and his sister after their deceased father ruined the family. The setting is Altania which is basically 19th century England but with the existence of magic and a crazy day/night schedule (day and night length vary daily – odd this is the second book I’ve read recently that has had this kind of set up). There is a King and Parliament which are weak and out of touch and who are facing rebellion. Magic is a diminished force compared to their past and it is a power meant to be wielded by men only.

The three parts of the book are pretty distinctive. As I mentioned above, each part followed the model of an English classic and they also focus on distinctive parts of the story. Part one, which is roughly 200 pages, is mostly set up. Part two stays with Ivy and follows her to a remote estate where she serves as governess in a lonely and mysterious estate with a formidable owner. This part worked best for me. Part three returns to the storylines started in part 1 and roughly conclude them while leaving some strings unattached for a second book.

What I liked:
The setting was interesting and felt fully fleshed out with a meaningful history and current political crisis. This is really where this book excelled for me. I also like that the primary(ish) romance in the book was somewhat unconventional. The middle section of the book taking place on the remote estate worked very well and was the only time I was really glued to reading. The plot has many threads and with many directions it can go in the future though care was taken to provide some closure to most of the threads.

What I didn’t love:
None of the characters really did anything for me. Ivy was too good, Rafferdy too stereotypical and Eldyn was just weird. I think the storyline that bothered me the most is Eldyn’s. He has a sister that he almost literally keeps locked in a hotel room for weeks and his relationship with her is just odd. In general how he reacts and interacts with other characters didn’t make sense to me. He came across as stupid, self-absorbed and at times downright misogynistic but we’re meant to feel sorry for him and think of him as good and honorable. I could tell that the author threw in some things to try and ensure Eldyn was sympathetic but he and the storyline did not work for me. The attempt to include elements of Austen, Bronte and Dickens was kind of cool but it was a little TOO those things – it just came across as a poor rip off rather than something unique with the flavor of those authors. And there was a good bit of characters-doing-silly-things-that-don’t-make-sense-just-to-make-the-plot-work. For example, Ivy’s driving force in the first third of the book was to discover the secret of her Father’s history and affliction, and yet she neglects to ever ask Mr. Quent, who is an old friend of the family, how he knew her father, what their relationship was, what did he know about her father’s illness etc… It made zero sense that these would not be at the forefront of her mind especially as things develop. He does eventually tell her of his own accord but it is odd that she never asks.

The final verdict was that this was an okay read. I’m not sure if that is enough to vault me into reading book two but I definitely feel no drive to pick it up right away. I’m disappointed that I did not love it more considering that it has so many elements I love but it happens.

Has anybody read this one and continued on to book two?  Is it worth continuing?

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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Hell on Wheels (TV)

Cullen Bohannon says "Watch the Damn Show." Photo credit AMC
Hell on Wheels popped up on my Netflix streaming account a few weeks ago and its plot synopsis of a Civil War soldier seeking vengeance and ending up working on the Union Pacific railroad struck my fancy.  I am a huge fan of Deadwood, it's one of my top ten shows of all time and this  looked like it might have a similar flavor.  It comes nowhere near to the amazeballsness of Deadwood but I flew through both available series (12 or 13 eps each) and felt a little lost when I was through.  You know that feeling when you get so sucked into a story/world that you really miss it when its gone?  Definitely got that here.

Which is weird.  The world being presented is exciting in many ways but its also brutal, violent and full of hate and prejudice.  These are not actually things I covet in my life but considering Deadwood is one of my favorite shows ever.... I think actually what's going on is that the two shows share some other things that make me swoon (what?! don't you swoon over TV shows?).

1) Muddy Gray Characters:  Both shows are chock full of characters that would make a psychiatrist weep with glee.  They're unpredictable and often they'll  spend some quality time doing bad bad very bad things things, and then turn around and do something incredibly heroic, sentimental and/or selfless.  Even the evilest character has sympathetic moments so it's complex and surprising and thought-provoking and I LOVE that. 

2)Historical Wild West Setting: I am drawn to stories in this time period in the late 1800s.  It's such a tumultuous, ugly, and exciting time in our history.  I am in awe of folks who struck into uncharted territory for a chance at a better life.  I am also in awe (but not in a good way) of how truly horrible we were towards the Native Americans.  Hell on Wheels also showcases violent racism towards African Americans as well as violent conflicts between various different immigrant groups.  This mixture of pioneering spirit and adventure with violent conflict and hatred is intriguing and again complex and will end up producing exciting Drama almost every time.

3) Strong Female Characters:  Both shows feature women who have broken away from society's conventions, some by choice and some not, but they are all, be they prostitute or educated lady, strong, wise, and passionate women.  I especially like the character of Lily Bell on this show.  A proper English lady who falls in love with an American explorer and goes with him as a partner as he surveys for the railroad in the uncharted west. 

4) A pretty excellent cast: There are no Ian McShane here but the cast is pretty terrific.  The only two I recognized were Colm Meaney (Chief O'Brien!) here playing the rather corrupt and greedy but driven railroad owner, and Christopher Heyerdahl who is really good at playing the crazy, creepy guy.  The star of the ensemble cast is Anson Mount (above) who took a while to grow on me but by the end of the second season I was completely smitten.  He has a great way of playing Cullen Bohannon's dourness and what seemed like a constant unsurprised dismay at the shittiness of life and world while also managing to make him charismatic and hot as hell.  He's a nice complex character and Anson Mount plays him very well.  The rest of the cast is also great.

So if you, like me, have a Deadwood sized hole in your heart, you might want to check Hell on Wheels out.  I very much enjoyed and am even contemplating doing a re-watch.  I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for season three!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday - Best Sequels Ever

This week's top ten list assignment from The Broke and the Bookish Blog is the best sequels.  I read A LOT of series so this should be easy...or very very hard.  Here goes:

This is very fresh in my memory which is probably why it's on the list.  Book one in the series was great but it contained a heavy amount of set-up of both plot and characters.  This freed up Before They Are Hanged to  rev up the plot and really cozy up to the characters.  I preferred it to book one.  I am currently reading the final book in the trilogy and so far so fantastic.

2. Queen's Play by Dorothy Dunnett - The Lymond Chronicles
Dorothy Dunnett is an author that deserves more love. The Lymond Chronicles is a particular stand out in historical fiction greatness but book one (The Game of Kings) of the series was nigh near incomprehensible to me (there's a lot of plot and character obfuscation on top of some heavy scottish dialect).  I stuck with the series though and by the time Lymond was racing across the rooftops of Paris in this sequel I was sunk deep in the grip of obsession for this series that's pure barry (according to the internets that's scottish slang for fantastic). 

3. The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis - The Chronicles of Narnia
I remember as a child being so excited to find out that there were more Narnia books to read after being obsessed with an animated version of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.  I love this series and could really put any of the subsequent books on this list and Prince Caspian is probably considered the official sequel to TLTWTW but I've always had a soft spot in my heart for The Horse and His Boy which is the internal chronological sequel. Or something. I love it maybe because I was a little horse mad as a girl, maybe because I love stories where the underdog wins, maybe because I enjoyed that we get to see the Pevensies as Monarchs.  Whatever the reason, it's a favorite.

4. Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold
While this may not technically be a sequel to The Curse of Chalion, it's set in the same universe and has some of the same characters so I'm counting it.  This is a really amazing fantasy series with three books. Paladin of Souls is my favorite and won a bunch of awards (Hugo, Locus, Nebula).  This series is that rare mixture of thought-provoking ideas, smashing good story and really awesome characters.

5. Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch  - Gentlemen Bastard Series
This series has been pretty great so far and this second book of the series was a good continuation from book one.  Think Ocean's Eleven in a fantasy world resembling Rennaissance Italy with lots of snarky humor.

6. Goblet of Fire and/or The Half Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling - Harry Potter Series
Like bajillions of others I adore this series.  These two are my favorites in the series.  I love the triwizard tournament and I appreciated how Rowling did not shrink from taking the series quite dark.  The Half Blood Prince is a favorite because we are properly introduced to the puzzle that is Severus Snape and the fallibility even of our heroes.  

7. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie - Hercule Poirot Series
One of her more intriguing and startling puzzles.  I wish I could have met Agatha Christie and had a good ole chinwag and cup of tea.  She must have been amazing.

This would fall into the category of a sequel in a series but written by someone other than the original creator/author.  The series in this case is Sherlock Holmes and this sequel published a couple years ago is complex and worthy of it's source. Writing a continuation to such an iconic series seems like it would be a very daunting task to take on but not only does he take it on, he kicks some ass.  Nice going Mr. Horowitz!

So for my last two I'm going to switch it up because I'm all about the hate and negativity apparently.  These are two of the worst sequels.

9. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
I loved The Hunger Games.  It was well-plotted with believable, likeable characters and perfectly paced.  My love for book one and it's perfection made Catching Fire very disappointing indeed.  I know a lot of people really love this series.  I wish she had stopped after The Hunger Games.

Pretty much ditto the Catching Fire disappointment above.

So that's it.  This was hard and felt a little like making a list of the best series but a good exercise!  So how about it? What are your favorite (or least favorite) sequels?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Ripper Street (TV)

Ripper Street reminds me a lot of Copper but for a British audience.  It is set around the same time frame (mid to late 1800s) and deals with cops investigating crimes in the roughest parts of their country's biggest city.  In this case, the police unit of focus patrols the East End of London (which includes White Chapel) and the show begins just after the last of the Ripper's murders.  It follows them as they deal with the aftermath of those brutal crimes as well as delving into the copper's private misadventures.

I was attracted to it not just for the interesting premise, but also because Mathew MacFadyen heads up the cast as Detective Inspector Edmund Reid.  I'm a fan of his but not of the truly appalling suits he must wear during this show.  He does a decent job leading the cast but the part doesn't really allow his charisma to come through - he's a hard man here and they don't show much humanity.  Like the main character on Copper, he also has a troubled marriage, has lost a child and is smarter than most everybody else. They both have maverick forensic scientists helping them on the sly.  Really the only real difference between the shows is the setting (London vs. New York) and Copper is a bit more violent, tawdry and crass because, well, you know what we yanks are like:)  The two shows have different creators however so I guess any similarities are coincidental.

The most interesting character for me is the enigmatic American Doctor/Former Pinkerton Homer Jackson who serves as forensic scientist.  His storyline along with a tough bawdy house madam he seems to be connected with in a hate/love relationship is one of the more interesting through lines of the series.  He was also the most likeable of the characters for me. 

Overall, I liked the show but didn't love it.  It was engaging but not addictive.  I think the first series has a slow start but picks up in the last 4-5 episodes.  The last episode was probably my favorite because the main storyline is dire and dramatic and the B storyline is seriously creepy.  Hopefully the quality of these latter episodes carries into the second series which should be airing as I write this or pretty soon. 

Anybody else caught Ripper Street?  What do you think?

Friday, September 20, 2013

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend by Susan Orlean

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the LegendRin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend by Susan Orlean
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Format: Audio (cds from library)
Narrated By: Susan Orlean
Original Publication Year: 2007
Genre(s): Nonfiction, Memoir
Series: N/A
Awards: None

Rin Tin Tin was popular well before my time and the only thing I really knew about him was the name and that he was a German Shepherd. Ignorance was actually a nice way to enter this book about his “life and legend” but I was curious how Susan Orlean was going to fill up over 300 pages.

Turns out there is no problem filling up the pages as this is not just Rin Tin Tin’s story but also the story of the early years of Hollywood and television, and of how a dog came to represent so much for so many people including Susan Orlean. It’s well-researched and is obviously a labor of love and perhaps a little bit of fixation. It goes beyond the mundane facts of what is a very interesting story and examines the why of Rin Tin Tin’s iconic status and tries to dissect what drove the people connected with him.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book for me were the examination of how the nature of our relationship with dogs changed between the early and mid part of the century. Dogs went from working tools and transitioned into companions. Which made the fact that many families donated their pet dog to the war effort in World War II, (or perhaps more accurately loaned their dogs to the military) that much more fascinating.

One slight criticism is that I think having Susan Orlean read her book wasn’t a great choice. It works for certain authors, primarily humorous ones like Tina Fey, Bill Bryson, or David Sedaris, but Susan has a relatively monotone voice and her reading is mostly expressionless. I got used to it and it didn’t bother me that much but a better reader might have really made the book come alive.

Overall it was a good reading experience and I’m glad to have made Rinty’s acquaintance!

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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Sweet Far Thing by Libba Bray

The Sweet Far Thing (Gemma Doyle, #3)The Sweet Far Thing by Libba Bray
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Format: Audio (downloaded from Library)
Narrated By: Josephine Bailey
Original Publication Year: 2007
Genre(s): YA Fantasy, Historical
Series: Gemma Doyle, # 3, 1.Great and Terrible Beauty, 2.Rebel Angels
Awards: None

I found book three of the Gemma Doyle series long, rambling and frequently annoying but in the end, I am glad, barely, that I saw the series through to its end. This was a rough series because it started so brilliantly and, in my opinion, decreased in quality through book two and three.

The idea and themes of the series and the imagination used to portray them are really wonderful. It’s about girls in the Victorian Period, corseted and ignored but for their role as wives and mothers. What if one of these girls was to inherit great magical power that she completely controlled and allowed her and her equally repressed friends to experience a world of freedom and adventure? Where would this power lead them and how would they choose to use it? The exploration of these ideas alone is enough to make the series worthwhile and I think Bray deals with the theme of women’s lib extremely well.

So I wish there wasn’t so much that frustrated me about this book. It’s too long and the story rambles without much conviction. The characters also lack conviction and seem to change in unnatural ways depending on how the plot needs them to be. I was riddled with questions while reading: Does Felicity have the worst judgment ever known to human kind and why do Gemma and Ann continue to trust her and remain her friends? Seriously, Felicity and Ann and Pippa for that matter are the worst friends EVER. Who exactly are the Rakshana? They make no sense. Why have they all the sudden decided to be Evil with a capital E. The only real reason given seems to be “they’re men” but…umm…they’ve always been men…why has every last one of the members decided now to abandon their original mission and just go all out for the power hungry, pick on the weaker sex M.O. a.k.a. screw chivalry? Why did Gemma never trust McCreevey? She trusted her mother’s killer, even after she KNEW it was her mother’s killer, more than McCreevey. Was it just because one had a kindly mothering demeanor and the other did not? Really? A book sparking questions can be a really great thing but it should be about ideas and not sloppy characterizations and storytelling. Basically you give anything in this book a good think and it falls apart. Don’t get me wrong; that can actually work okay but the reader has to be caught up in the story intensely enough to miss those weak elements and unfortunately they out competed the story for me.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what has been increasingly bothersome about Gemma and the other characters. Part of it is that while Gemma seemed to learn something at the ends of book 1 and 2 by book 3 she seems to have none of the benefit from those lessons. This lack of character growth feels like a lazy way to keep the plot afloat and drag it out. Also, even when Gemma was doing selfish stupid things and bending to the very bad judgment of her friends I could have accepted it if we had at least been allowed to see her inner dialogue indicating that her moral compass was dinging in alarm. We certainly see inside her head plenty but at crucial moments she does not question or examine. I’d have invested in her moral dilemmas a bit more if I could actually perceive that one existed.

I’m sorry to be so harsh and I think my real frustration with the book was that it had such a good beginning and such a good premise but for me it just fell apart. At the end of book one there is a lovely humorous monologue by Libba Bray on her day to day experiences writing the first book. One of the things she brings up is trying to outline and it just not working and I respect that – everyone has their style and their way. But I think not having a clear plan and vision may have hurt this series overall or at the very least it developed in ways that did not jive with my style and my way. There is so much I admire here and if your good at just rolling with the flow you may very well enjoy it far more than I did.

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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday - Books for Fall

I've been enjoying the Top Ten Tuesday posts on other folks blogs but had not yet jumped in because, well, it seemed like a lot of work and I'm lazy.  But I'm going to start giving it a try because while I am lazy I also like to reflect on things and the discipline of the list-making might help books stick in my memory.  And I do love a good plan!
Top Ten Tuesday is a bunch of listy goodness established by the lovely folks at The Broke and The Bookish Blog.  Every Tuesday they designate a top ten list of books in a certain category and this Tuesday's is the top ten books you are most looking forward to this fall. 
This one is a hard one for me to start with as it doesn't really jive with my reading style: 1) I don't read too many new releases or even keep an eye on when things are happening and 2) I mostly read on whim based on what I'm in the mood for and don't have much of a future plan.  With that said I'll give it a shot:

1. Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie

This is the third book in Joe Abercrombie's gritty fantasy series known as The First Law.  I loved the first two books in this series (The Blade Itself, Before They are Hanged) and have this one waiting on my ipod narrated by the terrific Steven Pacey. They are full of grey, unpredictable characters that are impossible not to care about for better or for worse. It's also full of devastating wars and a grand quest to rival Tolkien but this ain't no Tolkien.

2. The Hidden Goddess by M.K. Hobson

I am a fool for series and I apparently have a few I'm in the middle of which is fun.  This is the second in the Veneficas Americana series set in an alternate reality late 1800s America where magic is a thing. It blends Historical, Fantasy and Romance fiction. In book one, The Native Star, frontier witch Emily Edwards gets a big old rock stuck in her palm (literally embedded through the middle of her hand) and she must pair up with grumpy stuck-up warlock Dreadnought Stanton for a cross-country journey to get it removed.  Adventure and a fantastic relationship ensue.  I'm excited to see how the adventure continues!

3. Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold

Another series!  This book is 13th (or so depending on what order you follow) in Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan series.  This is space opera at its best and I've read most of the series but missed this one along the way for some reason.  It was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards.

4. Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Ummm...this is yet another series but this time its the start if a new one!  I've heard a LOT about Kate Atkinson and how fantastic she is.  Her newest book, Life After Life, has been getting a ton of buzz and was on the shortlist for the 2013 Women's Prize for Fiction.  Case Histories is the first in a crime/mystery series featuring PI Jackson Brodie which has also been made into a British TV show I'd like to check out (Hello to Jason Isaacs!).

5. Women in White by Wilkie Collins

It's a classic.  It sounds gothic, creepy and awesome.  It's also on my 100 Books Project List which I need to be getting on with.

6. The Sisters Brothers By Patrick DeWitt

This book made a big splash in 2011 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It's a western about brothers working as assassins.  Part of the description on Goodreads "it is a violent, lustful odyssey through the underworld of the 1850s frontier that beautifully captures the humor, melancholy, and grit of the Old West and two brothers bound by blood, violence, and love."  

7. Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger

And just to prove I'm not totally behind the times, here is one 2013 release.  I had a bit of a falling out with Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series but this YA novel set in the same universe looks pretty fun.  

8. The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine

I just recently read Ella Enchanted which was great and the consensus seems to be that this is Levine's second best book. Should be a nice treat during some especially stressful bits of the fall.

9. No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym 

I ended 2012 with Excellent Women by Barbara Pym and it was perfect.  Quietly humorous and poignant but uplifting as well.  No Fond Return of Love seems to have a similar main character to Excellent Women; a woman taken for granted and having trouble finding a true connection in the world.  Sounds melancholy but it truly isn't which is, I think, Pym's talent.  It sounds like an excellent way to spend a couple of winter days.  

10. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Paired perhaps with The Woman in White for a couple of good Halloween reads.  Shirley Jackson is very good at writing the bizarre that seems normal and creating an atmosphere of menace.  Also on my 100 Books Project List!

Not a terribly "new" list I'm afraid, but now that it's put together, I'm quite excited to get cracking!  Happy Fall reading everyone!  What reads are you most looking forward to before 2014?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Four Authors that Deserve More Love

I need to start this post with a caveat.  I am not in publishing and while I love to read I am only moderately aware of book trends etc... The point being that I may appear to be griping about these authors not getting enough attention when more knowledgeable or in touch folks might contradict me easily. They are definitely not unknowns but I feel like I never hear wnough about them and they are amazing.  So really all I'm trying to say is:  I LOVE these authors and think that any reader will be rewarded by picking them up.  

Dorothy Dunnett

Front CoverI discovered Dorothy Dunnett by judging a book by its cover.  I was browsing in a book store and came across a re-release  of the first book in her Lymond series with a new cover that struck my fancy (a good reason to hope that amazon and ebooks don't take over the world).  Little did I know how lucky that judgement was.

Dorothy Dunnett writes historical fictios that will thrill you, make you cry, set your heart racing and possibly give you nights of feverishly reading until two o'clock in the morning. I was obsessed while reading the six books of The Lymond Chronicles but I think it's important to note that it took a little bit to get obsessed.  Book one, The Game of Kings, is frequently incomprehensible because Dunnett is trying hard to hide the nature of her main character and there is a LOT of Scottish dialect.  It is also a lot of set up for the rest of the series - Dunnett seems to want to make sure to give Francis Crawford a proper and thorough introduction. Francis definitely deserves this meticulous, slow spooling attention but seriously I had no idea what was going on in this book until probably the last chapter.  I mention this because I've heard that other people have also had this experience.  But despite the fact that I'm a lazy reader and if I'm constantly confused will put a book aside, I kept with it and continued on to book two almost immediately.  There was something about it.

What are those somethings?  First of course must be Lymond who is a hero to end all heros.  Imagine a 16th century James Bond but the more modern Bond, with loads of emotional complexity buried deep beneath his unflappable facade. All the characters around Lymond are unsure whether they love him or hate him but they are so strongly drawn by his charisma that they end up stuck to him, unable to be without him and that is a little of what the reader goes through as well.  He is a masterpiece.  The level of historical detail effortlessly interwoven in all her books creates what is for me  the most authentic setting I have ever encountered in a historical novel.  The scope is enormous - across the books we travel to Scotland, England, France, Malta, the Ottoman Empire, Malta, and there may be more I'm forgetting.  It's all intricate political intrigue and adventure and crazy, crazy situations that should be silly but are not, even a little.  Wry humor spills out of almost every page.  Dunnett doesn't coddle and there is loads of complex plot and quoting in foreign languages that the reader must work out for themselves.  And while this may not sound fun, the books suck you in so deeply that all the speculation and deciphering is addictive.  She frequently includes passages in non-English languages and pretty much never translates.  So I remember reading one of her books on a plane traveling somewhere with a college class and getting to a crucial spot in one of the books where there is a key passage in french.  I was so desperate to know what it meant that I was passing the book around trying to get someone to translate with no luck.  But then of course I arrived at the end of the chapter, and with the timing of a master, all was revealed.  It made me think that all the previous untranslated passages were there so that when you got to this one key passage, you are practically in a panic to know what it means and she keeps you drawn along for several more pages before relieving the tension with a whoosh.  She has such attention to detail I do believe this was all planned.

Finally I have to start a new paragraph to talk about the romance that slowly burns through the novels.  It is the pinnacle of romance and Dunnett is a master of spinning it out and bringing her two lovers together.  Lymond is a special character and imagining the woman to match him could have been no easy challenge but Dunnett pulls it off.  With language and subtle description she manages to create a sensuality that I have never seen matched. The moment when Lymond realizes he is in love is one of the most perfect scenes ever - I read it over and over - and while out of context it may lose its beauty and thrill here it is:

 All that he was not. He looked at her. The long, brown hair; the pure skin of youth; the closed brown eyes, their lashes artfully stained; the obstinate chin; the definite nose, its nostrils curled. The lips, lightly tinted, and the corners deepened, even sleeping, with the remembrance of sardonic joy... The soft, severe lips.

And deep within him, missing its accustomed tread, his heart paused, and gave one single stroke, as if on an anvil.
Dorothy Dunnett is by no means unknown  - she was been designated a member of the OBE by Queen Elizabeth after all - but I think she may not be as recognized as she should be by American readers.  So, my fellow Americans, if you are a fan of historical fiction or just good writing, please read her!  She's written a couple of other series as well and I've also read The House of Niccolo  which is good but the Lymond Chronicles is her masterpiece in my mind.  The fact that I can remember as much as I do about the books, even with my poor memory is a testament to the place they hold in my reading heart.  

Kate Ross 

I can't remember what led me to Kate Ross a couple years ago but I'm guessing I read the description as a  "Regency Era mystery" and picked it up quick.  It was a lovely and in the end very sad discovery.  Kate Ross wrote 4 mysteries featuring the urbane and mysterious Julian Kestrel, winning the 1997 Agatha Award, before she died of cancer at the age of 41.  So my recommendation comes with the caveat that this is an unfinished series that is left with much unfulfilled potential due to the author's tragic death.  If you can't bear this kind of heartbreak you might want to steer clear.

The four books that exist are wonderful.  Julian is a wonderful main character.  He is a respected and well-liked member of the Ton but there is an air of mystery about him -  no one is quite sure where he came from.  This mystery surrounding him and his life is a larger scale background mystery running underneath the main stories of all four books. This gives the series a cohesive feel.  

I also listed her just after Dorothy Dunnett because although I have not read this anywhere I am convinced she is a Dorothy Dunnett fan.  The books are lighter than Dunnett's books for sure but they have some complexity to them and the mysteries take their time to unravel.  Julian is much like a less hyperactive Lymond - very talented and clever, as well as being pretty emotionally complex, hidden under a imperturbable mask of sophisticated unconcern.  She also introduces a friendship between Julian and a girl in the first book that I am convinced would have mirrored Lymond's but of course I'll never know for sure whether I was right. 

This is one of the best mystery series I have picked up in many years and I had never heard of Kate Ross so I thought it important point others her way.  The first in the series is Cut to the Quick followed by A Broken Vessel, Whom the Gods Love and Devil in the Music (which won the Agatha).

Georgette Heyer

Nancy Pearl , "librarian to the stars" (ha!), introduced me to Georgette Heyer on a podcast that used to be produced by a Seattle based NPR station.  I generally like Nancy Pearl's recommendations and witty Regency era romances seemed right up my alley.  She was writing about the same time as Agatha Christie and even wrote some mysteries but it's her regency romances that are the true delight.  And the great thing is that there are A LOT of them, between 30 and 40, so there is plenty to dig into.
When I started reading her books I wasn't really a romance reader.  I liked books that included romance but I didn't really read books where romance was the point.  After I had blown through all of Heyer's books though, I was hooked and wanted to read more romance.  Looking for romance novels that I found readable was a whole other odyssey but even now that I have found some authors I like, none of them can compare to Heyer. 

I think the difference is that Heyer was not writing erotica - the raciest thing that happens in her books is a vaguely eluded to kiss.  So the romance must be generated through great characters, chemistry and an engaging story.  And almost all of her books have all of it as well as an immense amount of wit and good humor. As I've discovered, I can't stand a romance that takes itself too seriously, and Heyer never lets that happen.  They're a light and fluffy romp and I mean that in that absolute best of ways.  The other thing I find remarkable is that despite the fact that she wrote scads of romances they are all quite different - each couple and the adventures that bring them together are unique.  I read many of them in a row and in no way got bored or felt like I was reading the same formulaic nonsense over and over.  One thing the books do share are lovely strong and smart female leads and men that actually deserve them. 

In short she is to whom I hold all other romance writers accountable.   Well except for Jane Austen who, cannot in my mind be surpassed, but Heyer is a close second. I think Heyer was probably pretty popular amongst an older audience but with the re-issue of her books I think its time a new audience embraced her. My favorite Heyers:  Devils Cub, The Convenient Marriage, Frederica, Arabella, The Talisman Ring, The Corinthian, The Nonesuch, and The Quiet Gentleman.  And Holy Moley, I have just discovered that there is an audio version of The Convenient Marriage read by Richard Armitage - my head will now explode.

Lois McMaster Bujold

I list Lois McMaster Bujold just after Heyer because she has mentioned in interviews that she is a fan of Heyer's books and used her as inspiration in some of her own creations, particularly A Civil Campaign.  But Bujold's fiction is a far cry from Regency era romance.  She is a phenomenal Science Fiction and Fantasy writer and probably the most decorated SFF writer you've possibly never heard of.  She has won numerous, and I mean numerous, Hugo and Nebula awards and been nominated many times beyond that.  I think I discovered her when I was going through winner lists for those awards and was surprised that I had never heard of her.  Intrigued I picked up the first book in her fantasy Chalion series "The Curse of Chalion" (because I'm more an F then an SF girl) and was blown away.  This led to quickly devouring the other two books in this series and then moving on to her best known SF series about Miles Vorkosigan - space opera at its finest (of which A Civil Campaign is apart).

What sets Bujold apart?  Hers books have fantastic plots and are smart and funny but their real strength at least as far as I am concerned are the characters.  Her characters are extraordinary but very real and even when you find them annoying it is with affection.  She never makes her characters do things that don't make sense either generally or based on what we know of them just to service the plot.  They are foremost and they serve as solid pillars to some terrific storytelling.

The other thing at which she is fantastic, is writing smart books with many interesting conundrums and social questions to ponder but they don't hit you over the head with it.  They are complex books with thought-provoking themes that feel like grand and fun adventures.  She is just superb and I don't know why she doesn't create as much hoopla and talk as Scott Lynch and John Scalzi and Patrick Rothfuss.  Don't get me wrong - they are all great writers as well but Bujold is something special and I hope everyone in the whole world will read her!  Paladin of Souls is my favorite of her books.

So there you have it.  I don't think I've done a very adequate job selling how truly awesome these writers are but I do hope someone will stumble upon this post and be led to the awesome fiction awaiting them!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Rebel Angels by Libba Bray

Rebel Angels (Gemma Doyle, #2)Rebel Angels by Libba Bray
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Format: Audio (Electronic from Library)
Narrated By: Josephine Bailey
Original Publication Year: 2006
Genre(s): Young Adult, Fantasy, Historical
Series: Gemma Doyle Trilogy # 2
Awards: None

Rebel Angels continues the story of Gemma Doyle and her quest to free herself and her friends from the bonds of authority and society’s strictures. Most of the action in this second volume of the series takes place over the Christmas holiday while Gemma, Felicity and Ann are in London. Gemma’s (and really all the girl’s) family problems are more front and center and complicate Gemma’s decision making. The book centers on a quest – to find “the temple” – and the book is filled with vague riddles meant to be clues that VERY slowly lead Gemma to her destination.

As I feared, this book was not nearly as good as book one. I still enjoyed it for the most part but there was a lot more eye-rolling. The main problem is that the narrative is much more forced. Without the need to set up the characters, relationships and the setting, which I think made the first book work so well, the book must be much more plot driven and it is done quite lazily. This is exacerbated by the fact that it is almost 150 pages longer then book one when it could have been easily shorter. By forced narrative I mean that the author has mutated their character(s) in unnatural ways to make the plot work. Frequently this means making them dumb and, when it is not the first time I’ve met the character, it is especially glaring. There are a lot of “mysteries” which I figured out 200 pages before Gemma and Gemma, inexplicably, begins to rely much more heavily on her “friends” very faulty judgment while ignoring the only non-biased advice she gets, i.e. “Trust No One”. The Order’s approach to Gemma doesn’t make a lot of sense and the Rakshana have turned from what might have been an interesting murky organization into straight up mustache-twirling villains who like to kill young girls. There was also a lack of continuity with book one. Why did Gemma’s mother instruct that Gemma be sent to Spence Academy if something happened to her, when that seems to be the place at which Gemma's enemies could mostly easily find her and influence her? One of the characters from book one turns out to not be what they seemed and by doing so makes much of their actions in book one nonsensical. It all seemed very sloppy to me.

The biggest problem however is that the characters begin to morph into flat and unlikeable girls. As I mentioned, much of Gemma’s likeability is sacrificed to make the story work. Gemma’s “friends” are no longer believable as her friends. While Gemma may have gained some wisdom from the happenings in Book 1, her friends have not and if anything seem even more intent on their own agendas and in using Gemma to get what they want. They do this blatantly and also blame Gemma for everything that goes wrong even though they share very much if not more in the blame. Despite this, Gemma seems totally reliant on them, will not enter the realms without them and abandons her own good judgment and instincts to bend to their poor judgment. This ends up helping to significantly undermine Gemma as a character. Anne and Felicity are no longer complex and interesting – they are just horrible. I hope book three sees Gemma starting to rely on herself more and Anne and Felicity finally growing up but I don’t hold out much hope. It also looks like the lack of plotting discipline will continue as book three is a whopping 250 pages longer than book two.

With all that griping why would I continue to book 3? Because book one was so good, that I need to see it through to the end. And I am probably much harsher on this book then it deserves, mostly, because I came to expect something based on book one that is not carried through in this sequel.

Final Verdict: Disappointing but still a moderately engaging read.

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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

A Great and Terrible Beauty (Gemma Doyle, #1)A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I became acquainted with Libba Bray earlier this year when, after encountering many gushing reviews, I read her most recent book “The Diviners”. I had a very conflicted reaction to this book -loved the story and setting and the horror elements; hated pretty much all of the characters particularly the main female lead. I was left curious to see what the author would do with a different series and her Gemma Doyle trilogy looked to be right up my alley interest-wise. Hence, I picked up “A Great and Terrible Beauty”, (first in the Gemma Doyle Trilogy) but I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect and was worried that it would have some of the same character issues of the Diviners.

Lo and Behold I was pleasantly astonished at how wonderful this book was. Gemma Doyle is a 17 year Victorian Era girl living in India when her mother is (essentially) murdered. The family uproots and heads back to their native England and Gemma’s grief-stricken Father quickly packs her off to a boarding finishing school for girls called Spence Academy. Gemma struggles with her grief and guilt over her mother’s death while she tries to fit into what for her is a foreign environment. And then there are the visions to deal with…

The setting and story is deliciously gothic and revolves around secret societies and school girls with magical power they are ill-equipped to deal with. At its best this is a coming of age tale and the story does an excellent job portraying the allure of the Realms to girls with no power over their lives in a restrictive, male dominated and class driven society. The Realms are an obvious representation of freedom and independence and it is no wonder Gemma’s bullying friend Felicity is the one most powerfully addicted to the Realms as she is the girl who longs for control and power the most.

The friendship that springs up between the four girls, Gemma, Ann, Pippa and Felicity, seems unlikely at first but Bray takes her time and makes it work brilliantly. The friendship between them, binding but fickle and always shifting is a quite realistic depiction of the relationships between young girls. And there are consequences to the girl’s immaturity and bad judgment which I think sometimes is sadly lacking in YA books and which drives me CRAZY. Gemma ignores her Mother’s warnings and as a result consequences are had, lessons are learned and some growing up actually occurs. I am concerned that this will not carry into book two but for now I’m pleased with how Bray has handled her characters.

The narrator of the audio book is generally very good but is one thing that bothered me - the voice for Anne. She is read with a “lower class” British accent which having been brought up in the academy I don't she'd have, scholarship student or not. I’m sure this was done deliberately to accentuate her status (or lack thereof) but despite being a little thing, it continually niggled.

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Sunday, September 1, 2013

I Am Half Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows (Flavia De Luce, #4)I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Format: Audio (CDs from Library)
Narrated By: Jayne Entwistle
Original Publication Year: 2011
Genre(s): Mystery, Historical
Series: Flavia DeLuce # 4
Awards: None

Christmas comes to Buckshaw and Flavia, as usual, is determined to celebrate it with a bang (homemade fireworks) and some bird lime on the roof to catch Old St. Nick. And also as usual she ends up interfering in a police investigation and almost gets herself killed while no one bothers to chastise her or seemingly care.

Along with Christmas, a movie production, crew and cast, have taken over Buckshaw including the very famous actress Phyllis Wyvern. There is a LOT of filler in this book and it takes almost half the book for the real action to get rolling. This is like one of those “flashback” episodes in a season of television that is meant to catch up new viewers and give the actors a week off. Almost every character and happening in the previous books is recapped. But eventually a dead body is found by Flavia, of course, and it is when the house is particularly full because half of the village of Bishop's Lacey is stranded at Buckshaw during a massive blizzard. There are suspects galore and much squirelly behavior to dissect which Flavia does with glee.

And immunity. This book was particularly egregious for letting Flavia get away with some things that really make me gnash my teeth. She interferes with and removes things from crime scenes and then goggles at the incompetence of the police and preens herself waiting for their praise. She is nearly killed at the end of the book and she gets not a single word of chastisement at the end. Not a single adult resolves to keep a better eye on her. It’s a problem I’ve had with the other books as well and I KNOW it’s a convention of this series so I should just get over it but I really wanted to, in particular, slap her father around a bit. There are, as usual, developments that lead toward explaining the nature of Flavia’s family but the frustration I feel at her families unconcern and their general dysfunction does cut into my enjoyment of the books.

I want to give the book two stars for the amount of filler and the loose ends untied (i.e. why does Phyllis Wyvern treat her maid the way she does?) and the fact that none of Flavia’s elders seem the least bit concerned for her. I’m giving it three though because the fact is, despite all its flaws, I still enjoyed it. Flavia is a unique, sometimes annoying, but always fascinating character to spend time with and Bradley’s writing style and his ability to turn a phrase are just impossible to resist. I do also like how he is VERY slowly spooling out little pieces to Flavia’s own personal puzzle which has shaped her family into the dysfunctional unit it is.

I’ve listened rather than read almost all of the Flavia DeLuce books and I have to say the hiring of Jayne Entwistle is one of those happy unions - She IS Flavia. She sounds believably 11 and her reading, (the inflections, the emphasis) of Flavia’s lines are perfect. She really brings Flavia to life.

In reading some other people's reviews there was a lot of griping about the lack of character growth across the books and the fact that they all happen within a 4-6 month time span.  This hasn't per se bothered me but as I read people's wishes that the books were more spread out and we actually saw Flavia as she grew up, I found myself agreeing that it would have been a pretty interesting approach.  What do you think?  Is it good the books focus on an eternal 11 year old?  Would the the books retain their charm with a 16 or 17 year old Flavia?

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