Friday, December 28, 2012

Book Battle Royale!!

     Here we are at the end of another year, and in the course of my reflections, I am trying to not be disappointed in myself.  Admittedly, over the course of the year, I have been very busy (what year isn't busy for me?!), and until October, my goal to read 50 new books seemed reasonable.  I was ahead of the game before Halloween, and it seemed easy to keep up the momentum.  Sadly, through a series of unfortunate events, I fell four books short of my goal.  Oddly enough, it was not for lack of reading material; if anything, I had difficulty choosing between all the books I had pre-ordered that arrived between October and November (not to mention the ones I got in December).  Indecision (and admittedly, a lack of time) kept me from finishing my Goodreads challenge.

     In a fit of creative genius, I have decided to ask you to help me to choose the order of my book list for the new year.  In this Book Battle Royale, I will list the books that are awaiting my attention. You will vote for the order they should go in, one through nine.  Read through the descriptions (courtesy of Goodreads) below, and at the bottom of the page, respond to the polls.  On New Year's Day, I will post the results.  Please help me!!  Don't leave me wringing my hands in another fit of indecision!!

     In no particular order, here is my list of to-read books:

1) Trapped, by Kevin Hearne,  Iron Druid series, book 5

     After twelve years of secret training, Atticus O’Sullivan is finally ready to bind his apprentice, Granuaile, to the earth and double the number of Druids in the world. But on the eve of the ritual, the world that thought he was dead abruptly discovers that he’s still alive, and they would much rather he return to the grave.

      Having no other choice, Atticus, his trusted Irish wolfhound, Oberon, and Granuaile travel to the base of Mount Olympus, where the Roman god Bacchus is anxious to take his sworn revenge—but he’ll have to get in line behind an ancient vampire, a band of dark elves, and an old god of mischief, who all seem to have KILL THE DRUID at the top of their to-do lists.

2)  Ashes of Honor, by Seanan McGuire,   October Daye series, book 6

     It’s been almost a year since October “Toby” Daye averted a war, gave up a county, and suffered personal losses that have left her wishing for a good day’s sleep. She’s tried to focus on her responsibilities—training Quentin, upholding her position as Sylvester’s knight, and paying the bills—but she can’t help feeling like her world is crumbling around her, and her increasingly reckless behavior is beginning to worry even her staunchest supporters.

     To make matters worse, Toby’s just been asked to find another missing child…only this time it’s the changeling daughter of her fellow knight, Etienne, who didn’t even know he was a father until the girl went missing. Her name is Chelsea. She’s a teleporter, like her father. She’s also the kind of changeling the old stories warn about, the ones with all the strength and none of the control. She’s opening doors that were never meant to be opened, releasing dangers that were sealed away centuries before—and there’s a good chance she could destroy Faerie if she isn’t stopped.

     Now Toby must find Chelsea before time runs out, racing against an unknown deadline and through unknown worlds as she and her allies try to avert disaster. But danger is also stirring in the Court of Cats, and Tybalt may need Toby’s help with the biggest challenge he’s ever faced.

     Toby thought the last year was bad. She has no idea.

 3)  Elantris, by Brandon Sanderson

     Elantris was the capital of Arelon: gigantic, beautiful, literally radiant, filled with benevolent beings who used their powerful magical abilities for the benefit of all. Yet each of these demigods was once an ordinary person until touched by the mysterious transforming power of the Shaod. Ten years ago, without warning, the magic failed. Elantrians became wizened, leper-like, powerless creatures, and Elantris itself dark, filthy, and crumbling.

     Arelon's new capital, Kae, crouches in the shadow of Elantris. Princess Sarene of Teod arrives for a marriage of state with Crown Prince Raoden, hoping -- based on their correspondence -- to also find love. She finds instead that Raoden has died and she is considered his widow. Both Teod and Arelon are under threat as the last remaining holdouts against the imperial ambitions of the ruthless religious fanatics of Fjordell. So Sarene decides to use her new status to counter the machinations of Hrathen, a Fjordell high priest who has come to Kae to convert Arelon and claim it for his emperor and his god.

     But neither Sarene nor Hrathen suspect the truth about Prince Raoden. Stricken by the same curse that ruined Elantris, Raoden was secretly exiled by his father to the dark city. His struggle to help the wretches trapped there begins a series of events that will bring hope to Arelon, and perhaps reveal the secret of Elantris itself.

4)  Alloy of Law, by Brandon Sanderson,  Mistborn series, book 4

     Three hundred years after the events of the Mistborn trilogy, Scadrial is now on the verge of modernity, with railroads to supplement the canals, electric lighting in the streets and the homes of the wealthy, and the first steel-framed skyscrapers racing for the clouds.

     Kelsier, Vin, Elend, Sazed, Spook, and the rest are now part of history—or religion. Yet even as science and technology are reaching new heights, the old magics of Allomancy and Feruchemy continue to play a role in this reborn world. Out in the frontier lands known as the Roughs, they are crucial tools for the brave men and women attempting to establish order and justice.

     One such is Waxillium Ladrian, a rare Twinborn, who can Push on metals with his Allomancy and use Feruchemy to become lighter or heavier at will. After twenty years in the Roughs, Wax has been forced by family tragedy to return to the metropolis of Elendel. Now he must reluctantly put away his guns and assume the duties and dignity incumbent upon the head of a noble house. Or so he thinks, until he learns the hard way that the mansions and elegant tree-lined streets of the city can be even more dangerous than the dusty plains of the Roughs.

5)  The Serpent's Shadow, by Rick Riordan,   The Kane Chronicles, book 3 

     He's b-a-a-ack! Despite their best efforts, Carter and Sadie Kane can't seem to keep Apophis, the chaos snake, down. Now Apophis is threatening to plunge the world into eternal darkness, and the Kanes are faced with the impossible task of having to destroy him once and for all. Unfortunately, the magicians of the House of Life are on the brink of civil war, the gods are divided, and the young initiates of Brooklyn House stand almost alone against the forces of chaos. The Kanes' only hope is an ancient spell that might turn the serpent's own shadow into a weapon, but the magic has been lost for a millennia. To find the answer they need, the Kanes must rely on the murderous ghost of a powerful magician who might be able to lead them to the serpent's shadow . . . or might lead them to their deaths in the depths of the underworld. Nothing less than the mortal world is at stake when the Kane family fulfills its destiny in this thrilling conclusion to the Kane Chronicles. 

6)  The Mark of Athena, by Rick Riordan,  Heroes of Olympus series, book 3

     Annabeth is terrified. Just when she's about to be reunited with Percy—after six months of being apart, thanks to Hera—it looks like Camp Jupiter is preparing for war. As Annabeth and her friends Jason, Piper, and Leo fly in on the Argo II, she can’t blame the Roman demigods for thinking the ship is a Greek weapon. With its steaming bronze dragon masthead, Leo's fantastical creation doesn't appear friendly. Annabeth hopes that the sight of their praetor Jason on deck will reassure the Romans that the visitors from Camp Half-Blood are coming in peace.

     And that's only one of her worries. In her pocket Annabeth carries a gift from her mother that came with an unnerving demand: Follow the Mark of Athena. Avenge me. Annabeth already feels weighed down by the prophecy that will send seven demigods on a quest to find—and close—the Doors of Death. What more does Athena want from her?

     Annabeth's biggest fear, though, is that Percy might have changed. What if he's now attached to Roman ways? Does he still need his old friends? As the daughter of the goddess of war and wisdom, Annabeth knows she was born to be a leader, but never again does she want to be without Seaweed Brain by her side.

7) Iced, by Karen Marie Moning,  Dani O'Malley, book 1; Fever series, book 6

     The year is 1 AWC—After the Wall Crash. The Fae are free and hunting us. It’s a war zone out there, and no two days are alike. I’m Dani O’Malley, the chaos-filled streets of Dublin are my home, and there’s no place I’d rather be.

     Dani “Mega” O’Malley plays by her own set of rules—and in a world overrun by Dark Fae, her biggest rule is: Do what it takes to survive. Possessing rare talents and the all-powerful Sword of Light, Dani is more than equipped for the task. In fact, she’s one of the rare humans who can defend themselves against the Unseelie. But now, amid the pandemonium, her greatest gifts have turned into serious liabilities.

     Dani’s ex–best friend, MacKayla Lane, wants her dead, the terrifying Unseelie princes have put a price on her head, and Inspector Jayne, the head of the police force, is after her sword and will stop at nothing to get it. What’s more, people are being mysteriously frozen to death all over the city, encased on the spot in sub-zero, icy tableaux.

     When Dublin’s most seductive nightclub gets blanketed in hoarfrost, Dani finds herself at the mercy of Ryodan, the club’s ruthless, immortal owner. He needs her quick wit and exceptional skill to figure out what’s freezing Fae and humans dead in their tracks—and Ryodan will do anything to ensure her compliance.

     Dodging bullets, fangs, and fists, Dani must strike treacherous bargains and make desperate alliances to save her beloved Dublin—before everything and everyone in it gets iced.

8)  Shadow of Night, by Deborah Harkness,  All Souls series, book 2

      Deborah Harkness exploded onto the literary scene with her debut novel, A Discovery of Witches, Book One of the magical All Souls Trilogy and an international publishing phenomenon. The novel introduced Diana Bishop, Oxford scholar and reluctant witch, and the handsome geneticist and vampire Matthew Clairmont; together they found themselves at the center of a supernatural battle over an enchanted manuscript known as Ashmole 782.

     Now, picking up from A Discovery of Witches’ cliffhanger ending, Shadow of Night plunges Diana and Matthew into Elizabethan London, a world of spies, subterfuge, and a coterie of Matthew’s old friends, the mysterious School of Night that includes Christopher Marlowe and Walter Raleigh. Here, Diana must locate a witch to tutor her in magic, Matthew is forced to confront a past he thought he had put to rest, and the mystery of Ashmole 782 deepens.

     Deborah Harkness has crafted a gripping journey through a world of alchemy, time travel, and magical discoveries, delivering one of the most hotly anticipated novels of the season.

9)  Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, book 1

     Around the world, black hand prints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky.

     In a dark and dusty shop, a devil's supply of human teeth grows dangerously low.

     And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherwordly war.


     Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real; she's prone to disappearing on mysterious "errands"; she speaks many languages—not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she's about to find out.

     When one of the strangers—beautiful, haunted Akiva—fixes his fire-colored eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself?

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Summer Reading List, or How I Can't Stick to a Plan

     The summer this year kicked my butt.  Back in late May, I thought I would need a lot of fluff reading to get through the season, as most of the books I was looking forward to aren't being released until mid to late fall.  So I get myself all of kinds of traditional contemporary romance novels, thinking they could tide me over while I waited for my other books.  As with most plans, it didn't really work out that way, and now I have a stand-by  pile of fluff that is staring at me with sad puppy eyes, wondering when I'll find time for it again.

     What really tripped me up was A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness.  I spent my week at the beach devouring it, but when I started to critically analyze the story, it was like holding sand.  So I forced myself to go back over it, rereading it a second time, in an attempt to write a review.  By that point, it was July.  I still have time to get to my fluff, right?

     Thanks to either GoodReads or Amazon, I found out another favorite author had published another book in an ongoing series.  I love Lynn Flewelling's Nightrunner series; it's an amazing swashbuckling adventure with very fun characters.  A Casket of Souls is the newest book in the series, and I devoured it.  She has done an amazing job of keeping the characters fresh and emotionally connective.  At the same time that I had ordered this one, I also got Glimpses, a collection of short stories and art featuring the characters of the Nightrunner series.  This is one of those things that rounds out the backstory and makes certain nuances more easily understood.  I found it to be a great compliment to the series, and maybe something that would be easily overlooked by those who aren't fans.

     At about the same time as those two books arrived in my mailbox, a forgotten preorder also found its way to me.  Back in the early spring I had preordered Karen Marie Moning's graphic novel, Fever Moon, which is set in the universe of her popular Fever series.  (The one that I am slightly obsessed with; I admit it).  Unfortunately just before it was completed, the artist, Al Rio, committed suicide.  A portion of the sales go directly into a trust for his wife and children.  So to me that was money well spent.  And while it's not my favorite genre, this particular graphic novel has some awesome artwork.  I love the pin-up girl style Al Rio used to bring the characters to life.  The story was a nice side plot, and added some depth to the background without interfering with the story of the books already in print.

     I did make an attempt at my fluffy romance novels.  I like Margaret Mallory's Highlander series, so I thought I would try out her earlier work.  Her first series, All the King's Men, is set in the late 14th century/early 15th century England.  I'll admit to being more interested in the background politics of the story them in the romance plotline.  The author did a great job bringing the life and times of King Henry V to the foreground.  The romance storylines were good, if standard; the history was pretty well researched.  I at least get an E for effort in attempting to get through my book pile.

     By this point, I was well into August, and on the road for most of the month.  Just before going on vacation, a friend lent me a book after hearing my praise for Laurell K. Hamilton's Merry Gentry series.  (Shut it, Burt).  I had even given her a copy of A Kiss of Shadows last Christmas (and knowing her reading list, she'll get to it sometime next year).  She had read a series with a similar urban-fantasy setting revolving around the Fae.  She lent me (what she thought was) the first book in the series.  Turns out it was the third book; the series (so far) is a trilogy.  Frustration!  Angst!  Here I am, on a road trip, and the only book I brought with me is not the right one!  So I spent a portion of my time searching for the rest of the series at every bookstore I came to.  Fortune was having a laugh at my expense, for the books are not recent enough to be carried at most stores.

     When I finally got home, I rushed to the library.  Glorious day!  They had gotten my reserve notice while I was on the road, and managed to assemble the other two books for my convenience.  I then spent my remaining summer vacation time devouring them.  And I got indigestion too.

     The first book of the series, Tithe, by Holly Black, honestly took me by surprise.  This trilogy is marketed as teen fiction.  I'm not sure I want to suggest this series to any teens under the age of 17, unless they have lived in the depths of urban poverty and decay.  To them, this will seem bright and full of hope.  Truthfully, the urban decay and social breakdown that is the emotional backdrop to this series is frightening in its stark veracity.  it's scary because it's true; it is all too real.  Almost too dark.  It was hard to decide if I liked the story or not, because it seemed too adult for teens and yet not ready for the adult shelves.

     The story follows a teenage girl named Kaye who finds out she is a changeling, a fae child that was exchanged for a human one.  Her mom is a guitar player in a band, and they live with Kaye's grandmother in a rundown New Jersey suburb of New York City.  Her best friend is a borderline psychopath who that works the night shift pumping gas.  Kaye struggles to find her identity, both in the Fae realm and the mortal one.  Added to that she is set up to be a sacrifice in an ancient ritual of fealty; working her way out of it is almost impossible.

     The dark overtones to the story would do White Wolf proud.  (Look Burt, there really is no such thing as happy shiny fairies!)  The second book, Valiant, is just as dissonant as TitheValiant is set in the same universe as Tithe, though with an almost entirely new cast of characters.  Valerie is an average teenage girl growing up in a (slightly less decomposing) New Jersey suburb of New York City.  Unfortunately, she quickly finds herself the unwilling star of an afterschool special.  Running away from home and a situation she finds too painful to understand, she ends up living the life of a homeless teen in a subway tunnel with a strange group of kids she met in a coffee shop.  Worse yet, she gets entangled with the fae outcast of the city, and addicted to a drug that is suppose to help fight iron sickness.  When it comes to light that the cure is poisoning fae, Val comes up as a prime suspect for murder.

     This story was both easier and harder to get through.  I found it easier to empathize with the main character, and yet the dystopia she found herself in was almost impossible to bear.  The story was compelling the whole way through; it even ended on a somewhat happy note.  The third book, Ironside, wraps up plotlines from both books, and brings the entire cast together.  Thankfully, reading the first third of the book before realizing it was the last book in the trilogy did not seem to ruin any of the storylines from the first two books; it only made me more grateful to get them when I got home.

     Ironside once again focuses on Kaye.  Still unsure of her place in the Fae world, she seeks to show her boyfriend, the Unseelie King, that she is worthy of his attention.  In return, he sends her on an impossible (seeming) quest.  Disheartened, Kaye decides to self-destruct, and sets out on another impossible mission; she promises her mother that she will return the human child the Fae stole.  All the while the Seelie Court is hunting Kaye, in hopes of using her as their secret weapon in their war on the Unseelie.

     It is a seat-gripping experience, this trilogy.  As an adult, you can see all the bad choices glaring like neon signs, and how attractive they are to the moth-like teen mind.  At the same time, the author does a remarkable job of showing that no matter how bad the previous choice, you can always choose better the next time; redemption is available to everyone, if they are willing to face their poor past choices.  There is an awesome message of hope here, lying under the detritus of modern social decay.  Life is a trial, but it can have a happy ending.  You just have to face problems head-on, as hard as that can be at times.

     Despite all the running around and the time crunch, summer is still my favorite reading season.  I made a concerted push this summer to stay on top of my goal to read 50 books this year.  Just 12 weeks left to the year now, and I'm slightly ahead of my goal.  I'm looking forward to the November rush, when my wait for pre-orders will be over.  Maybe I'll even get a chance over the holidays to get through that pile of fluff.....

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Urban Meets the Fictional

The third series up for review is the All Souls trilogy.  Actually, I've only read the first book, A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness.  The second book is out on shelves now.  My cousin lent this book to my mom last August, as a portion of it is set just down the road from Syracuse in a small town called Madison.  Familiarity breeds interest in this case.  After she finished it, my mom raved about it to me and my sister.  As I was still absorbed in other readings, my sister got first crack at it.  Much like my mom, she raved about it, and so it was my turn.  That was six months ago.

Sometimes when I get handed a book, I'll suffer from a sense of mulishness, mentally insisting that a book couldn't be as good as someone else says, as though only I can pick out a good book.  (I admit to seeing this same attitude in my daughter when I try to get her to taste new things).  The irony of this attitude is that some of my favorite books have come from others.  At least half of my collection is made up of books that were gifts.  Even so, I'll get muleheaded at first, and procrastinate, letting a book languish in my room for months at a time; my daughter will do the same to her plate, letting the offending food sit to the side until nothing else is left.  Finally I'll convince myself to read it; after six months, I finally got around to reading A Discovery of Witches, and all it took was a trip to the beach for some dedicated reading time. 

The story opens in Oxford, England, and travels to France, finally landing in upstate New York.  Dr. Diana Bishop is a scholar of some renown, an authority on books of alchemy and the transitional period of history between mystical beliefs and scientific fact.  Dr. Bishop is also a witch, the last in a long line of a very powerful bloodline.  Quite by accident, through her research on a perfectly mundane topic, she comes across an enchanted alchemical manuscript.  Fearful of her birthright and the secrets locked within its pages, she returns it to the university library.  Unfortunately for her, many other creatures have been searching for that manuscript, and they will do whatever it takes to get it back.

Intrigued by rumors, Matthew Clairmont decides to observe Diana Bishop himself, to determine if she is as powerful as gossip says, and if there is any truth to her finding the last manuscript.  Being a scholar and vampire, Matthew has his own reasons for wanting it.  An unlikely friendship begins as the two of them try to understand the other, creatures of two very different classes.  As more creatures begin to show up at Oxford University, and the witches begin to threaten Diana, the two of them are pushed together, and are forced to flee to France.  Once there, Diana and Matthew realize they are falling in love, and all the deadly consequences that holds.

This is an odd book, in that when I try to dissect it for critical analysis, I am left holding sand.  The individual parts are not strong enough to stand on their own, and yet the completed product is undeniably good.  I see this same frustration from other reviewers.  Some give it a bad review, because the individual parts are lacking.  Others took the long view and said that the entire story is worthwhile, without analyzing what made it so good.  I'm going to try to walk the middle path, and then give my conclusion.

As to the lead character, Diana Bishop, she is a host of contradictions.  Other characters continually describe her as brave, but for three quarters of the book, she's having panic attacks and passing  out.  Admittedly, at the very end of the book we learn why this is, but it does make the heroine a bit harder to see as a strong lead.  There is one science while they are in France that shows her to be brave.  Otherwise, she is a bit like an ostrich, sticking her head in the sand at the slightest hint of magic.

Diana's romance with Matthew is another puzzle piece made out of sand.  For one thing, as romances go, this one seems emotionally tame.  The descriptions to me lack a certain amount of passion.  I'm not asking for pornographic descriptions, but the level of romance described in the story is... paltry.  The words and gestures that are supposed to be showing the reader the blossoming love are empty, and to my mind, some can be construed as merely platonic.  Also, because of media hype, those who do not know much about the paranormal-urban romance genre are trying to compare this to the Twilight series.  That is a faulty comparison at best.  "There's a vampire involved in a romantic way in this piece of fictional literature.  Clearly we can make a comparison!"  No, not really.  The story, the audience, the romance, itself; none of these things have enough similarities to make a comparison.  It'd be like comparing a platypus to a hummingbird because they both lay eggs.

This is a fiction story.  It is set in a modern (mostly) urban setting.  It discusses magic and creatures we associate with folklore.  There is romance as two characters fall in love, but this is not necessarily central to the plot, more like a supporting subplot.  The characters are defined to a point, but not enough to guess where the plot will take them.  In all honesty, this strikes me as the sort of story told at the start of a game (roleplaying game specifically, though I am sure video games do it too).  This book is like character creation in a way.  The characters have defined backstory, one that will entangle them in the GM's plot/mystery-to-be-solved.  But the real story itself is only just beginning.  We get to watch the whole thing unfold, see the characters develop into epic personalities that will be able to do all those amazing things the plot says are on the horizon.  I think that is why it is so hard to critique on individual elements.  Right now, the individual elements are unmolded, still soft.  It's the equivalent of trying to dissect oublek (cornstarch and water makes a fun experiment).  So that leaves it as a matter of faith; you have to trust that the promise given here of an amazing story is honest, and that it is worth reading.  And now that the second book is out, I can see if the promise is authorized.

Droll Fantasy....

Well, the summer was just as busy as expected.  I did get to write my reviews, but only on legal pads.  I realize that doesn't do any of you any good, so I'm in the process of transcribing them.  For an updated list of what I have read, see the GoodReads link on the right hand side.

After reading the Iron Druid series, I was all hyped up on magic.  I also had given myself a deadline.  The last time I had borrowed a "few" (around a dozen or more) books from my friends "Shannanna", it took me the better part of three years to return them.  When I last visited them in March, returning the last of the previously borrowed tomes, I was handed a whole new series.  So after completing the Iron Druid books, in April, I decided to spend the month of May working my way through my rented fiction, which was also heavy into magic, though of a different kind.

Officially titled the Twelve Houses series, by Sharon Shinn, I've taken to calling them the Mystic & Rider series, after the first book; it was just easier to remember that way.  Unlike the urban setting of the Iron Druid books, this series is pure fantasy, set against the backdrop of an entirely fabricated universe.  There is even a map, though it is small and hard to read, clearly an image rendered in black and white from color.  Given that I love geography, and I believe it can only enhance a story to have a map for readers to follow along on, if you are going to provide one, make sure it is clear an detailed enough to be read accurately.  Ok, I'm putting away the soapbox, for now.

In this particular world, there is a country (continent?  island?) called Gillengaria, and it is divided into twelve fiefdoms who owe loyalty to the king in the royal city.  These fiefdoms are each ruled by a noble family, and they own the land in trust for the king.  The problem begins when certain nobles decide the king is getting old, and it might be worthwhile to stage a coup.  They argue that the king's heir (the princess) is a recluse, and that he is unlikely to have another child with his second wife.  There are rumors that his queen is a mystic, a practioner of magic.  The first book starts here, as a group of mystics and King's Riders (an elite guard chosen by the king) are sent out to gather information on the state of unrest growing throughout the kingdom.

Mystic & Rider is a Nancy Kerrigan.  The book is technically flawless; it has all the components to a fantasy novel that I enjoy.  However, it lacks passion, an emotional tie-in that pulls me along by the short hairs.  For the first hundred pages, even the author seems mildly confused as to why they are on a mission.  Once everyone gets over their awkwardness, and the author has a clearer idea of where the story is going, the reading gets easier.  The story moves along great, though the romantic scenes are still somewhat stilted and uncomfortable, as though the author was trying not to write about falling in love, even though that was where the characters were going.

The counterargument to this viewpoint is that the author was trying to express the amount of restraint the characters themselves feel.  The two main characters are extremely rigid in their self-control; they ARE stilted and reserved as they fall in love.  While this seems a valid argument, I think that the author could have written it better.  You can be rigid and yet still emote other feelings.  It seems to me that the author was the one uncomfortable with voicing the emotions, not the characters.

However, in The Thirteenth House, there is almost a complete role-reversal, and all the control is stripped away.  The characters fall heavily in love against the backdrop of court intrigue, and the passion is bubbling out of the pages.  The fear and unrest in Gillengaria continues to rise, and the king decides to send the princess on a tour of the noble houses during the height of the social season.

Focusing on a different member of the group from the first book, the author continues to examine the definition of love.  The main character is a mystic, with the power to change her shape.  Because of this, her family asks her to assume her sister's identity and go on tour with the princess.  Through this guise she falls in love with the regent, who is uncle to the princess, and a married man.  His temperament is similar to hers, and as tempestuous people do, they fall madly in love.

Unfortunately, it is only a momentary happiness.  Her most faithful companion, steadfastly in love with her, cannot bear to watch her in love with another man.  Her other companions try to get her to reconsider.  Rumors begin to flow, saying the regent is compromising her sister's virtue.  And then there is his wife, who is by all accounts a good person.  Who suffers the most from love?  Is it always a bitter pill when happiness is found?

I've entertained arguments that the foil of the regent was a false entity, that he was a bit of a cad.  To that I say, everyone falls in love sometimes, even those who don't seem to deserve it.  Also I don't think he was a bad guy.  I think he was a good representation of the ultimate temptation; he was everything she thought she wanted, and she couldn't have it.  The love she could have, she had taken for granted.  There are a lot of hard choices in that situation, and I sympathize fully.

The third book is Dark Moon Defender.  This isn't a Western, not that I care for that genre at all.  However, it reminds me a good deal of a cowboy story.  The country is still in quiet turmoil, and a war seems imminent.  The king sends out one of his loyal Riders on a mission to gather intelligence about the religious fanaticism that seems to be sweeping the populace and pushing for the destruction of all mystics.

I can't explain why, but this story honestly seems like a John Wayne movie.  The heroine is strong, yet in need of protection from those who pretend to car for her.  The hero is a rough and rowdy sort, a street tough turned loyal soldier.  He wants to save her from the evil surrounding her, and she is the softness he never had.  They are a good match, the hard stone and the soft spot, a proper balance to each other.

However, it is the last book that actually solves all the mysteries (well, obviously).  Reader and Raelynx brings the story arc to its final conclusion.  In this case, there is no avoiding the impending civil war.  The strange qualities observed in both the princess and the queen are defined, and a very unlikely lovematch occurs between a commoner mystic and the princess herself.  As is the case with epic fantasy like this, good triumphs in the end, but not without a very heavy price.  No one comes out unscathed, though for some the change is a new beginning.

Technically there is a fifth book, Fortune and Fate, which shows the aftermath of the war, though the focus is on a side character and not one of the original members of the companions in the first four books.  It was good, though in a way it felt like a four hundred page epilogue at times.  It tied up some of the loose ends that were left, and the whole thing was smoothly done.

This series was very good as far as standard epic fantasy go.  From my understanding, the author intended them to have a strong romantic edge.  In this I would say there is some success and some failure.  It was romantic insofar as the main characters eventually declared love for each other, and spent a lot of the book trying to understand each other and their own feelings.  However, I'd say the scenes of "searing passion" were few and far between, and written by someone who did not want to offend anyone with said scenes of passion.  It was like peaking through your fingers at kissing scenes in a PG13 movie when you're nine.

I know I've left out a lot of details, but that was to avoid any spoilers.  However, if you're in the mood for some fantasy with a twist, take a look at this series.  Now that I've returned it, I am tempted to buy it for myself (or at least put it on my wish list for the holidays).

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Those Wily Celts

     Hello out there!  It's been two months since the last post, and honestly, real life interfered a lot.  Two weddings down, one to go, plus a few other trips in between, and the summer is just as busy as the spring.  However, I am trying to catch up on my backlog, so here is the first of three reviews I owe you, my avid fans.  Feel free to comment afterwards, or post questions.  I love a good discussion and dissection of a literary work.


     I have always been a fan of fiction over non-fiction, particularly fantasy (rather than its partner genre, science fiction).  I loved stories of quests, maidens, knights, magic, and all the creatures that go along with them.  As a preteen, I became deeply engrossed in the Grimm brothers and their tellings of old tales; mythology came shortly thereafter in my reading list.  My father had a copy of Bulfinch's Mythology, and I was a grateful recipient.  Admittedly, some of the vocabulary escaped me, and I had a hard time recalling the names of the kings and queens.  Locked within those pages though, was a world at once familiar and alien.  I think to this day that some of my love of history was born from the beautiful and frightening stories told by the Greek myths.

     I've read many collections of fairy tales, from mostly European cultures- Irish, German, Polish, French, British, Scottish, Italian, Dutch, and Scandinavian.  I've read (the majority of) 1001 Arabian Nights; my grandfather had a leather bound copy, printed in the last quarter of the 19th century.  In my teen years, my father gave me a copy of the Upanishads and the poetry of Omar Khayyam, as way of introduction to the more arcane topics of Eastern philosophies, reincarnation, and spirituality outside of religious dogma.  As I became a teacher, I work to create a community of tolerance, so I often read creation myths from Asia, Africa, Australia and the Americas.  I think I can say that I have a basic grasp on the mythologies of most of the cultures in the world.

     Despite being so well-read, I can still think of some glaring holes in my knowledge.  In high school I tried to rectify one of them by spending a month or two learning about the Nordic Eddas, after reading Eight Days of Luke by Diana Wynne Jones.  The difficulty lay in the language.  I had such a hard time pronouncing the names of places and people, that it drove me to distraction trying to figure them out; it got to the point that I was reading a story two or three times over for comprehension.  I gained only a working understanding of the Norse pantheon before I gave up on it.  Added to that is the almost complete lack of knowledge of the Celtic pantheon (in part stemming from a lack of fiction books and new age section in my local libraries).  Gaelic only makes sense to me auditorily; the sounds and written letters screw me up every time.  In fact, reading Gaelic to me is a lot like reading Chinese with the English alphabet; when trying to render the sounds in English, the English alphabet fails at the necessary phonetics.

     Imagine my delight when I see a new series about the Celts on a friend's list; I decide it must go on my list too!  The Iron Druid series by Kevin Hearne is a new fish in an old pond.  The author begins with the Celtic pantheon, specifically that of Ireland in the late Roman period.  The main character, one Atticus O'Sullivan, is the last living Druid, and we're not talking the neo-pagan type of the modern era.  Trained in the first century BCE, Atticus is literally older than Jesus.  There are four books thus far, with one set to release later this year, and another set for next year.  The first book, Hounded, plays its role well as an introduction to the main character and the world in which he lives.  The subsequent books are as well-written and compelling.  Each one stems from the previous events, and build up a persona that is as complex as one would expect from someone two millenia old.

     In the first fifteen pages of Hounded, Atticus comes under attack by the Fae offspring of a certain Celtic god, Anghus Og.  It quickly comes to light that Atticus is a man who has spent much of his life on the run, hiding from Anghus Og and much of his own pantheon.  Hiding for the better part of two millenia, Atticus is suddenly finding himself forced to turn and fight.  In doing so, he looks for help from other supernatural creatures- werewolves, vampires, and witches.  He also starts to feel his ageand the lonliness of being the last of his kind, so he decides to take an apprentice, a buxom bartender named Granuaile. 

     Hexed begins just a short time after the end of Hounded.  Atticus finds himself under attack by a host of unsavory characters- Bacchants, witches, and demons.  Instead of being a loner, on the run, and worrying only about himself, Atticus is pushed into being a community protector.  Unfortunately, Atticus is not up to the task, and he is forced to call in back-up.  There is a heavy price in each call, and Atticus is not a man who enjoys being in debt to anyone.

     Those debts come due in the third and fourth books, Hammered and Tricked.  I was riding high on the build-up from the first two books, and then the third book kinda threw me into a corner.  I wasn't prepared for it.  In the first two books, Atticus is like a consummate con artist; he puts me in mind of Mel Gibson's character from Payback.  He has a  goal in mind, and he tries to make sure the collateral damage is minimal, affecting only those who deserve it.  The third book is darker because the plot plays chicken with the reader.  It defines that old adage "Just because you can doesn't mean you should".  You see where it's going, but you tell yourself there's no way Atticus would go all the way, in effect creating a war with an entire pantheon (and the ramifications of such of thing).  Then there are the character ramifications, too, that blindside you.  This book left me with mixed feelings; the writing and the story itself were great, but I was displeased with where it left the reader.  Actually, the author did an amazing job of highlighting the flaws integral to the characters, and how their choices because of those flaws left them in a very bad place.  I just didn't enjoy having to watch it all play out.

     Tricked begins with those ramifications, namely the wrath of the gods of other pantheons.  Atticus decides to start over, in effect, and fake his own death.  Even his own gods believe him to be dead.  In return, Coyote, trickster god of the southwest, calls in a debt owed.  This book also left me feeling a little off-balance; I'm not sure I like where some of the side plots are heading.  On the positive side, Atticus will finely have time and space to train his apprentice, the lovely Granuaile.

     Overall I am hooked on the series.  I love the geek humor inherent to the author's point of view.  There are all kinds of references to Dr. Who, Star Trek, and the sci-fi genre  in general.  I also think the author has more than passing familiarity with roleplaying games, as some of the descriptions sound very reminiscent of ones I've seen.  I'm impressed with the universe created in this series, specifically the use of mythology, and the laws governing types of magic and their use.  The characters are well-defined; I like how the author will sometimes use a supporting character to illuminate the hubris of the main character.  Atticus may be long-lived, and have a lot of power at his command, but he is still as flawed as any other man, and he doesn't always see that about himself until it is too late.

     I am excited that a new energy is being put into an old mythology.  If not for books like Eight Days of Luke, I would not have any knowledge of the Norse pantheon.  Better than that, the book breathed new life into a topic most consider dusty and disconnected from modern life.  The same goes for the Orphans of Chaos series, Percy Jackson series, and the Kane Chronicles.  These books examine the Greek and Egyptian myths, and relate them to the modern world.  I think Kevin Hearne is doing the same through the character of Atticus.  In these times of secularism and science, we still look to archetypes and allegories to help make sense of the choatic elements in our lives, the emotions and gray areas that modern life still can't define.  Myths have a deep and abiding place in our psyches, our collective (and individual) unconsciousness.  We look to them, and we can see ourselves in the fables of gods and men.  Those archetypes live on through us; at times, they capture the heart of a situation better than any psychologist.  Anyone who lives paycheck to paycheck undoubtedly gets the picture that Sisyphus and his boulder paint.  I think that Atticus O'Sullivan is that way, a myth living out a modern life.  I eagerly await his further antics, and how create a legend out of himself.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Growing Up Never Happens

When we use the phrase "coming of age", we usually mean it to apply to those tender years of transition, teen to adult.  It implies an expansion of worldview, a mastery of self, and a sense of greater maturity.  The truth is, these things happen at every age, at any stage of life.  A transition from an outmoded paradigm to a newer one requires a growth of self awareness; if you aren't doing this at every stage in life, you will definitely have emotional, mental, and social retardation.

When I was a freshman in college, I finally got around to reading Catcher in the Rye.  I was not impressed, but that's because I read it too late.  I felt Holden Caufield was a bit of a whiner.  In some ways, I could not empathize with him because I had crossed that bridge, and could not imagine thinking that way.  My worldview had expanded beyond that of Holden Caufield, and it could not go back to where it had been.  That's what coming of age means.  The newfound maturity prevents you from regressing (unless at every stage you choose regression over growth, but most people don't).

I think the term "coming of age" applies to Julie & Julia, by Julie Powell.  In this case, though, it's more of a quarter life crisis meets "growing up".  It's a memoir of a sort, an exaggerated biography of a point in the author's life that we all face as we truly mature into adults- turning thirty.  A century ago, that was almost middle-aged, and fifty years ago it was a time at which everyone was expected to be well settled and established, deep into a career or raising a household.  It was a symbolic point of what we as children considered "old".  In this decade, turning thirty seems superficially scary, because as we come out of the haze of post-graduation depression, we are left facing a lot of left over thoughts from childhood, ideas of who we would be, what we'd be doing, and what kind of life we'd be living.  Facing those childhood illusions of self can put some into a tailspin previously only seen in the midlife crisis of the forties.

Herein, the author faces her own outmoded sense of self, coming to the realization that childhood was far behind her, and the reality of her future looked little like how she imagined it.  The dream of a successful career and modern suburban family was as insubstantial as fog off the Hudson River.  Instead she finds herself at age 29 committing to a job as a secretary, unconsciously releasing the goal of being an actress.  She also learns that she has a syndrome that will make it harder for her to conceive as she ages.  On a less than conscious level, this deeply disturbs the author, as both the syndrome and career move are wholly counter to her own previous sense of self.  If she is not an actress, and she might not be a mother, who is she and where is she going from here?

In a fit of desperation (and cream-induced mania), the author takes up a quest.  It is how every culture, at one point or another, challenges the next generation- go on this quest, learn who you truly are, and come back to us as an example of how to live a life.  (Ironically, from a sociological and anthropological standpoint, we it is one thing we lack in our post-modern Western society, and I think it may be one of the reasons why so many in our society are on antidepressants.  We have not had the benefit of some challenge, some quest, to force us to define ourselves or to live fully knowing who we are.  College, to wit, is clearly not the answer).  This story takes place almost a decade ago, when blogs and podcasts were brand new, a cutting edge use of modern technology.  The author creates a blog, and at her husband's gentle urging, challenges herself to cook her way through an iconic volume of American culture- Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child.  The quest for self is begun.

As the story moves forward, the author is very successful at stringing together anecdotes, like cranberries and popcorn at Christmas time, to dress up a somewhat spindly story of her journey to reconcile her adult self with her dreams from childhood.  I found myself not thinking of the author as a real person, though in truth there are many like her in my generation.  It seems to me she is somewhat superficially witty, lacking any true depth or introspective philosophy to guide her through life.  Our modern society prizes our materialistic attitudes, and indirectly punishes those who come to an intrinsic sense of self worth.  In response, many do not take time to reflect on their lives, and so internal (and external) conflict throws a real wrench into the works, because without intrinsic value, there is little to go forward with, as this author demonstrates. 

Don't get me wrong, the author does indeed accept a large undertaking.  Julia Child's revered tome is a culinary challenge even for those who know their way around a kitchen.  What I found inspiring was how the author went about her self-discovery.  Some take up skydiving or deep-sea fishing.  Others gamble or go on bacchanalian retreats, drowning mental questions in sensory overload.  Instead, the author seeks to find herself (however unconsciously) by mastering a necessary life skill- cooking.  It combines the sensory delights of the above, with a deeply philosophical outlook on life.  When learning to cook a new dish, you learn about the culture the dish comes from, the physical skills necessary to execute it, and the nurturing feelings that come from feeding others.  It's a good way to find yourself.

Overall, it was a good read, though much like Holden Caufield, I suspect it affected others more deeply than it affected me.  Just getting into my thirties now, I am older in many regards than the author was when she wrote this.  I got over the nebulous fear of turning thirty before I was twenty-six, but life experiences differ for all of us.  All the same, I can appreciate what the author went through to find herself.  The quest to maturity is never an easy one; if it was, maturity would be unattainable.  And once past the tipping point, we come to realize it was not age we were afraid of, but disappointing our younger selves (or in some cases, those who love us the most).  All in all, I can see why it was made into a movie, and now I can finally watch it on Netflix.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Dreams of a Night at the Circus

*****Author's note- I finished this book a month ago, and I hand-wrote the review.  It's taken me that much time to get it posted.  Sorry for the delay.  Hopefully I will have the next one posted tomorrow.*****

 I got one of my favorite types of presents from a coworker at Christmas- a new book!  Everyone roll their eyes in shock.  It's a lovely hardback copy of Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus.  Even more interesting though, is that this same coworker is the one who lent me the Juliet Marillier books.  Both my coworker and Juliet Marillier have raved about this story; such a small world!  Personally, I think they were right to be excited about it.  Magic, mystery, murder, all in a post-Victorian Europe (and well, the US too, for parts).  It's awesome!  Rich on description, but not overly flowery, with a subtlety that you're more likely to find in theater pieces.  Anything can happen in the Night Circus; your dreams unfold before your very eyes.

Two magicians disagree on a philosophical point.  To settle the debate, they each train a student, who then are expected to compete in a prolonged duel, much like a game of chess.  But a matter of paradigm difference and one-upmanship gradually become a collaboration, and then a dance.  Instead of wearing one another down, the students hold each other up, building upon each other's creations.  The end result is a realm of beauty and magic, where the line between illusion and reality is blurred, and possibilities live and breathe.  However, the love they find together threatens all those involved, and the game must have an end....

I'm going to do something a bit heretical here and compare a book to a movie.  The cardinal rule that the book is (almost) always superior to the movie is something I agree with; my imagination can always create better special effects.  However, by giving this comparison, I hope to give you the reader a better understanding of the mood and setting in this book.  If you have seen the movie The Illusionist with Edward Norton and Jessica Biel, then you will have an easier time understanding this novel.  (I actually envision one of the magicians in the book looking and sounding a lot like Rufus Sewell's character from that movie).  If you have not seen this movie, I highly suggest it, though it is not necessary to see it before reading this book.  Much like this movie, the author does a very good job of creating an air of mystery, the idea of seen-but-not-understood-at-the-time.  I'll come back to that thought in just a minute; for now, let's continue with the atmosphere of the story.

The time period of the book is the late 19th century.  It was a time of both suffocating social order and unprecedented universal change.  One really could change social standing and wealth with wit and opportunity.  Opportunities were seemingly endless.  The concept of a self-made person came to define the national goal of several countries.  Using this mood to her advantage, the author creates an atmosphere that possibility is imminent reality.  To give this feeling a concrete basis, she uses the medium of live performances.  At a time when live performance is the most common form of entertainment for all members of the populace, the use of a circus as a stage for a magicians duel is brilliant.  A live performance is an organic thing, a truly living entity of its own.  It is wholly dependent on the symbiotic relationship of the performer and the audience.  The performance brings the audience's imagination to life, and in return the audience fuels the performance with their very presence.  Without an audience, a performance is theory without application.  The author does an amazing job of showing this relationship; those patrons of the circus that are truly inspired by it are made into an informal network that describes their own experiences to others, as well as keeping track of the whereabouts of the circus.  Altogether appropriately, they call themselves Les Reveurs, The Dreamers, for it is the stuff of dreams that the circus, and therefore the author, brings to life.

To that end, the author makes an interesting philosophical note.  With this story she states that mystery is a necessary goad to stimulate innovation.  One cannot dream of possibilities if the situation is clear and resolved.  Conflict and mystery provide the opening necessary for people to imagine new solutions and be open to all possibilities.  Without knowing where the walls are, a room can look and be almost anything.  To illustrate this point, the author provides us with a masterpiece of clockwork, a definitive symbol of the circus itself.  Throughout the day it changes from one color to another, shapes coming and going.  It's cyclical, and yet it also seems to point to all possibilities.  The same can be said of the rides and other amusements in the circus, specifically the attractions created by both mages. 

Now, I don't normally read other reviews before I write my own, but this time I was interested to see what detractors had to say.  It helped to provide focus, an exercise in defining my own thoughts by contrasting them against other opinions.  Two notes were continually voiced, and I felt compelled to rebut them.  The first detraction is that the romantic side of the story was flat.  The second was that the author broke the cardinal rule of creative writing, "show, not tell".  I think in this case, the author's subtlety went under the radar; readers could not believe the showing, because it seemed like telling with all the dialogue.

The author chose a difficult viewpoint, or rather, she used an uncommon one.  Third person limited is more common in theater; you have to watch the interaction to gain insight into the thoughts and feelings of the characters.  As a viewpoint, it is uncommon in a novel, because the author has to let the reader imagine the interaction for themselves and let the dialogue stand on its own.  Third person omniscient is more common, because the author can then describe all the thoughts and feelings of the characters, without having to rely on the readers' imaginations.  By using this limited voice, the author created the symbiotic relationship of a live performance within the realm of a static object, echoing the theme of the book.

As a way to show the subtlety of human interaction, the author does something creative- she uses a multitude of characters, and she switches setting often, once again echoing the movement and flow of a live performance.  If the people around us reflect portions of who we are, then the more people looking at us, the better we can see ourselves.  The myriad personalities in the book are like prisms, reflecting back aspects of the two main characters.  What they don't say for themselves seems to be played out by others.  The multiplicity of people, places, and times is also how the author builds the mystery of the circus and the events that shape the outcome.  Like a burlesque dancer with ostrich-plumed fans, the audience never fully sees all that happens.  You're left with glimpses of identity, insinuating images, and dreamlike locations.  Much like The Illusionist (or Usual Suspects for that matter), everything is in plain sight, but you only get fragments of the whole picture.  For some, this might seem like the author is "telling" and not "showing"; she illuminates each fragment, but it is up to the reader to light the whole picture before the end.  The depth of description and bold imagery in a way acts as camouflage to the dialogue.  Your mind's eye keeps lingering on the texture of the setting, so that you are only giving half an ear to the conversation.  It's the author's slight-of-hand at work.  You can't see the plot steaming forward because you're caught up in the imaginative playground she has created.

The other criticism against this story was the romance aspect, namely that some reviewers felt it was lacking.  I don't think they were paying attention.  There are a few points to this that I'd like to discuss.  First, the two main characters seemed to have limited contact with each other.  For almost half the story, one did not know the other supposed to be the challenger.  This entire romance operated like a lot like a modern long distance relationship, given how little they got to be together.  Secondly, the setting has its impact on the unfolding of this romance.  In keeping with the time and place of the story, the author writes the development of love with an eye to the post-Victorian era.  The modesty of the commentary exchanged goes a bit against the modern sensibilities; we expect love stories to be a bit more vulgar.  I don't mean crude; I mean that we expect to hear outright how people feel, with open displays of affection, and descriptions of bodily reactions.  Instead, the author has to show us, through the characters limited interaction and the voice of the time, how much impact they have on each other.  Given the limited scope of the viewpoint, that's quite a job, and she pulls it off well.  She uses the rich imagery of the circus to illustrate how the feelings of the characters evolve, and the impact they have on each other.  They build new attractions within the circus, making a waltz out of a duel to the death.  The energy between them literally brightens a room, making lights flare.  As the characters grow through the story, they become each other's perfect complement, one fitting the other like a dovetail joint.  The result is beautiful symmetry, something that many of us aspire to within our own partnerships.

There were a couple of mysteries I did not solve in the course of reading this novel, which means I'll just have to reread it at some future date.  Overall, I felt this story was very moving, and the author did a phenomenal job of creating a piece of theater within the covers of a book.  I actually hope they do make this into a movie; I think that Neil Burger, director of The Illusionist could bring this story to life in such a way as to be a credit to the book.  Until then, je suis une reveure.....

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Rabbit Hole, Looking Glass, or Just Some Really Good Beverages....

It's been awhile (okay, maybe an entire month).  I apologize.  I know how eagerly you all (or maybe just myself), await each installment, hovering on the edge of your seats, just dying to know what I've read.  Well, this time I decided to try something new.  I spent the last month reading an entire five-book series, thinking I could then pass along a more informative review.  I'm not sure if this will play out well, but that was my original thought. 

The series that caught my attention is once again from the realm of young adult fiction.  I saw a blurb for the third book in the series on Goodreads; it seemed like something I'd enjoy.  In a stroke of luck, at the end of the December, I found the second and third books in the bargain section at Books-A-Million; for the price of the first book, I got the two bargain books.  Three books for the price of two?  Yes, I will take that deal.  However, the series had to wait for me to finish a few other books first, so it languished on a shelf for a month before I could get back to it.

Leven Thumps and the Gateway to Foo by Obert Skye was not entirely what I expected.  It's the first book in the series, and I suspect it's the first mass-print book by the author.  I gave it three stars on Goodreads, and it's one of the few times I think that I didn't need a half star extra.  Don't get me wrong, it's not a bad read.  It was just.... well let me go over the plot first. 

There is a place where dreams come from, or maybe it's a place they go to.  There is a place that exists outside the realm of reality, that is a conduit for your imagination.  That place is called Foo, and it is in dire need of a savior.  Lucky for them, Leven Thumps will be given the job.  Aided by his new friends, Winter Frore, Geth, and Clover, Leven will race halfway across the world to destroy the only gateway into Foo.  Despite growing up in the most apathetic and abusive of households, Leven is a generous and helpful guy, intending to do his best (unless he's asleep and dreaming of his unworthiness). 

As I was saying, this book has some of the tell-tale marks of being a first by the author.  Or maybe I was expecting too much detail from a YA book.  At times the reading became repetitive and stilted; other times the descriptions were lacking the necessary fleshing-out to bring them to life.  It was like seeing someone with stage fright going through their part, knowing that if they just warmed up and relaxed into it, the performance would be amazing. 

The second book, The Whispered Secret, was of similar difficulty, except the backdrop was Foo instead of reality.  Some of the creatures that inhabit Foo are well illustrated with words, and others were still a little two-dimensional.  It reminded me a lot of reading Through the Looking Glass, or maybe a Seussian version of it.  I could still see the potential for an amazing story, but some of the charisma and dynamism of the plot would be shadowed, like a cloud passing over the sun.  There was still enough pull for me to want to keep going, and I figured I already had the third book, so I kept at it.

Now, it was all starting to come together.  In The Eyes of the Want, the descriptions of the backdrop and the evolution of the characters started to really gather steam.  It was like hearing the engine of a Porsche Boxster rev up.  You could just feel it ready to take off on a wild ride.  Some questions were still left unanswered, but the story was so engrossing that after sailing through the book and having only eighty pages left, I ran out to the bookstore and bought the final two books.... in a snowstorm.  I mean, I really didn't want to get through the third book and have to wait another day or two before I could continue the story.

I swear, I am not a book junkie.

Ok, maybe I am.

Anyway, The Wrath of Ezra and The Ruins of Alder were both outstanding.  The whole thing was polished, well written, and a bit of a nail biter.  I HAD TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED NEXT.  Quite the transformation from the first book, huh?  The author did a good job of sticking with the maturity level of the targeted audience, but there was a lot there for adults too.  Serious topics were glossed with a sheen of humor, and it made harder abstractions easier to grasp.  I think it had a few good life lessons in the series, and there were a couple of plot twists I didn't see coming.  Overall, I could see myself as a nine or ten year old and loving this series.  This would have been right up there with Madeline L'Engle for me as a kid.

Of course, I happen to like plaid elephants and pigs on zip lines, so maybe my version of reality isn't exactly normal either.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Torture- It's all a head game

So I received the following email in my inbox this week:*

"Dear Ms. Mitsch,
      I am writing this letter to let you know that I am so glad to hear you are such a fan of my work.  I have seen the review you wrote for Wolfskin, and I felt somewhat sorry for the emotional state it left you in.  Had I known that it was such a challenge to read such an obvious plotline, I'd have changed it right from the start!  Instead, I hope you continue on to read Foxmask, my sequel to Wolfskin.  I wrote it especially for you!**  Please let me know how you fare with it.  All my best, Juliet Marillier."

It's so nice to be thought of!  Especially in advanced retrospect, or is it retroactively proactive?  Anywho, it took me a week (and a lot of nailbiting and late nights), but I finished Foxmask by Juliet Marillier.  Clearly, she heard my plea last week for a more mysterious storyline; I got just that.  Maybe I should have been a little quieter in my demands.  Had I known what was to be delivered, I'd have cheered my good luck in getting the openess of Wolfskin.  Instead, this week, Ms. Marillier handed me a piece of cotton gauze, bid me to bind my eyes lightly, and put me in the passenger seat of her convertible.  I was to instruct her turning of the wheel as we drove down Route 1, hugging California's Pacific coastline on a foggy winter's morning.  Dear God, what horrific rush!

Whereas Wolfskin made an obvious statement of story arc in the very beginning of the book, Foxmask was almost the complete opposite.  The book is set almost two decades after the end of Wolfskin, dealing with the children of Eyvind and Somerled.  Eyvind's daughter, Creidhe, is the picture of domestic arts and goodwife practicality.  Thorvald, child of Margaret and Somerled, is an outsider in his community, more due to his own moodiness and self-centered nature than anything else.  As the story opens, Margaret tells him the truth of his parentage, sending his world into tumult.  Being eighteen, impetuous, and full of himself, Thorvald decides to go on a little expedition, just to see if his father is still alive.  That's about the only clue the author gives as to where this ride is going to take us.

Much like the rocky and pinwheeling nature of California's coast, this plot moves quickly in one direction, then another, and back again.  You can only get the barest glimpse of what's ahead of you, hardly enough to formulate where the road is leading at any given time.  Once again (or maybe as usual?), the author tackles some big philosophical questions.  Can a person change their nature?  How fixed are our personalities, given the genetic inheritance and the environmental pressures?  How much farther can truth take you in places of distrust and times of violence?  What is a necessary lie? Is there such a thing?  She also does a good job of exploring the moral ambiguities involved in "survival" versus "living".  Heady stuff, I know, and her ability to slalom through this very deep terrain while keeping the characters and plot on track is just remarkable.

In fact, the story of Foxmask very much resembles its slightly fantastical setting, which the author based loosely on the modern-day Faroe Islands.  Located between Norway and Iceland, the Faroes make the Orkneys look like the Azores.  (A little bit of geography humor for you there.  Go look them up on the map, I'll wait.  Get it now?  Ok, moving on).  Settled in roughly the same era as the Orkneys by the Norwegian Vikings, the Faroes are a hard-luck place for hard-luck people just looking to have a little place to live and pass on.  Not much is known about this islands before the coming of Irish monks, as whatever natives might've been living there did not have any written history.  If there was a movie to compare this story and location to, it'd be the western Purgatory.  Same bleakness of location, similar hard-luck stories.  It makes a fantastic backdrop to the ever-shifting story and larger-than-life questions and archetypes that the author uses.

So when I said I would prefer a little dodginess to an outright train wreck, I might've been wrong.  I have to say that both of these books put you between the proverbial rock and hard place, making you really question yourself and your moral code.  As my husband used to say, ethical questions are really the only ones worth debating; all else is a foregone conclusion.  My hat's off to Ms. Marillier; I must be her most emphatically reluctant fan.

Wow, now what do I read?  All else seems a little... pale in comparison.  Maybe it's back to the magazine rack for a few nights, and give my brain some time to cool off.

*- This is totally fiction.

**- This is utter and totally made-up crap.  Though it'd be awesome for an author to say that to me.  Maybe something for the bucket list....

Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Trip to the Light Isles- Why the Vikings are less than trustworthy....

More often than not, the types of books I enjoy have an air of mystery or suspense to them.  You're never altogether sure which direction the author's going to take.  I love that; I love that building of anticipation that comes from not knowing where the story is going.  Oh sure, I might be able to make an educated guess as to how the plotline is going to fall out, or what kind of character development is going to happen, but overall I like being along for the ride.

In fact, usually when I can see the layout of a story, I lose interest rapidly.  However, this time was very different.  In the first twenty pages or so of Wolfskin, by Juliet Marillier, the author sets out the entire premise of her story; I won't lie, it's like seeing a train wreck before it happens.  And the author gives you the choice: read on, and see how it plays out in real time, or set the book aside and find something a little tamer.  I'll admit, I did debate for a day or so.  Can I put myself through this psycho-drama?  Can I handle what's coming?

After getting my crash gear on, I dove back into the book with vigor, and pushed through it.  Don't get me wrong, it's not some badly written piece of literature that you have to work at to finish.  It is altogether sublime in its development of characters and building of tension.  Instead of a usual back country winding road that I usually drive, I've signed up to swim across Lake Champlain.  The challenge is seemingly obvious, but the far shore is still hidden by fog.  All I have to rely on is the author's elusive offer for a good ending.  I had to hope that would be enough.

Opening this story with an old Norse legend of two men who swear to each other a bond of blood brotherhood, the author sets the stage for an intense emotional rollercoaster.  The two main characters, Eyvind and Somerled, are a study in contrast.  From the time they met as boys on the cusp of manhood, both cling to the other, seeing a perfect compliment and companion.  They, too, swear a bond, one that is based on faith, meant to last an eternity.  Both have large dreams and the dedication to bring those dreams to life.  Sadly, the dreams of one will make a living nightmare for the other.

The author uses these two characters to explore a complex framework- the permanence we associate with promises and vows versus the constant change inherent to life itself.  In a time when certainty is necessary to maintain any semblance of civilization, making vows or giving one's word acts as a cornerstone to the functioning of society.  The fabric of trust needed in keeping a community together and thriving is based on that concept.  But the old axiom still applies- people change.  It is a universal law that we change over time; none of us are the same from one year to the next, because the experiences we have alter us and our perceptions of the world around us.  So how can you have both?  Is it even possible to make a deep vow to someone and be able to keep it over the years?  What if the vow is made in error of judgment?  How do you come to grips with trying to keep a promise, knowing that the other party is not worthy of the loyalty? 

The setting for this is one of my favorite spots in the world- the Orkney Islands off the coast of northern Scotland.  From the time of the Neanderthals, the smalls islands of the Orkneys have had many waves of inhabitants.  The author uses the backdrop of the late 8th century-early 10th century on the Isles, and she cleverly gives a plausible story for the settlement of the Vikings and the reaction of the inhabitants (mostly of Pictish decent).  I've seen Maes Howe, Skara Brae, and the Stones of Stenness, all of which are featured in some form in the story.  I think the author did an excellent job of describing the geography, as well breathing life into what is mostly conjecture on the culture and society of the Orkneys during this period of history.

Despite my trepidation at the outset, I have to say this story evolved in an amazing fashion.  If you have any interest in Viking culture or the Orkney Islands, this is a very good read.  Or if perhaps you like that feeling of seeing the challenge at the outset and like a good train wreck, this is might be a book for you as well.  I might still hesitate a little when this author makes an offer like this in another story, but at least I know I'll be in for a good time before the crash and burn.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Mini-Update: Look what I found!

Out of boredom with Iron Chef, I started surfing around on GoodReads.  Since joining the site back in 2007, I've never really looked around.  For that, I am a moron.  I would update my bookshelves, and maybe look at the shelves of friends, keep updated on what they've read ad maybe add it to my own lists.  Again, I am a bit of a moron for not looking around sooner.

Did you know GoodReads sponsors giveaways?  I feel like just about everyone but me must've noticed this.  I've often wondered how a book that was not yet published could already have reviews.  This is one of the ways; you enter a giveaway, and if you win, you get an advanced copy of the book.  You don't have to write a review, but if you do, GoodReads will use it to promote the book and/or author in question.  So all I have to do to get free new books is enter my name and address in a giveaway for the books I choose?  Yep, I am so regretting not finding this sooner!

Guess what I'll be doing until 2am?.......

When the Romans Leave: What Happens When Central Government Collapses

A couple years ago, a friend read a book about battles in Dark Ages Britain.  I read the review, and I mentioned to him that I would love to borrow the book, as I thought it sounded like a fun read.  He said sure, as soon as I find it again, you can read it.  Time passes, the Wheel of Life turns.  About a month ago, I received a surprise package in the mail- it's my very own copy of Battles of the Dark Ages by Peter Marren!  Inside the front cover was a note, professing an unnecessary apology about the delay, and the happy statement that now I have my own copy of said book (along with some really awesome and handy little metal tabs that act like placeholders; way cooler than post-it notes).  Hurray, what a lovely gift!

Now, as previously mentioned, I kinda stalled for the last two and a half weeks of December, not reading anything because I wanted to add to my challenge list for this year.  So the book sat on one of the many piles of books in my room, patiently waiting for me to pick it up and read it.  For such a slim volume, I'll admit it took me a little longer to get through than I initially planned.  Part of that is because I often forget that non-fiction takes double the time that fiction does; I theorize this has to do with the amount of information presented.  Fiction work is a made-up story; the information presented pertains only to the story, and does not have to be worked into existing frameworks.  Non-fiction though, goes slower because the information must be assimilated and matched up to existing frames of reference.  It's like fiction doesn't take up as much room because it goes into a magic bag of holding in my brain.  However, non-fiction has to be filed in the right box, on the right shelf, in the right closet inside my head.  That takes a little more work on my part.

The second reason it took a little longer than usual is the subject matter.  As much as I love history, as my friend Jim points out, I am not much of a military historian.  It's just not in my wheelhouse, as the chefs would say.  I love to know the cultures, the societies, the politics, and even at times the economics of history.  These things drive us.  I want to know the why's and effects of a war; I could care less about the battles fought or the casualty lists.  I think that military history is best when re-enacted; it makes more sense when you can see it happening.  At the very least it needs an interactive map, showing both political lines and geographical features.  I do realize that geographical and man-made features play a huge role in why a battle is fought, and how that can play into the wins and losses of war.

All that aside, I really enjoyed this book.  I remember all to well in world history classes, the timeline of civilization ran basically like this-

Cradle of Civilization (Mesopotamia)
Byzantium/Dark Ages Europe (which lasted for about 20 pages, and half of that were dedicated to the fall of Rome)
Medieval Europe (starting with the conquest of William of Normandy in 1066)

I was always curious as to what happened in the intervening 600 years.  I understand the basics of it; one of the major civilizations of the time crashed, and as a result of that crash there were roughly six centuries of civil strife across an entire continent.  Who has time for writing things down when you have to worry about your next meal and whether or not you'll be attacked tomorrow.  I get that, but it was glossed over in such a manner as to say six centuries went by and nothing happened other than people fighting each other like dogs in the street.  (I see all your heads nodding, like yep, that's about the truth of it).  I always found that to be an unsatisfactory answer.  As a species, we aren't that old, so any time we are a cogent people, we have to leave something of a mark.  Geologically speaking, six centuries is long enough to leave an indent on terra firma.  So what the hell happened in Europe from the fourth century to the eleventh century?

This book focused on just that- what was happening in Britain after the Roman army left.  It was fascinating!  Given the definition of "army" and the amount of time (from the removal of the legions to the arrival of William of Normandy), there was a battle fought roughly every 18-24 months, more often two or three in any given year.  Basically, it was the Hatfields and the McCoys, only instead of one river valley, it was a series of islands that amounts to the whole of New England.  Everyone was fighting their neighbor, if only because no one could agree where the property line was.

Even more interesting to me were the explanations of who was living where in the British Isles.  I vaguely remember a page or so in high school history dedicated to the discussion of the peoples of Britain, but it didn't make much sense to me.  Why were there so many different tribes for such a small place?  Where did they all come from?  Saxon, Jute, Angle, Briton, Pict, Dal Riadan (Scots), Mercian, Viking, and the Ulster Scots were all groups discussed in this book.  I wish I had a laminated map of Britain while I was reading this, or for each chapter to have a map that showed how the tribal kingdoms altered over the centuries.  It would have definitely helped fix the information in my head if I had a better internal map of England.

All the same, each chapter dealt with a different Dark Ages battle and its impact on the formation of what would become England.  The truly remarkable thing, as the author points out, most of the battles, despite their fame, are still hard to pinpoint on a map.  The few sources that survive from the time are not always factually straightforward; more often than not, the sources are more concerned with the epic poetry describing the battle and less with where and how it was fought.  That makes decoding this part of history all the more difficult, as there isn't much to go on.

The writing was well done.  It was easy to follow, and full of dry British wit, which I can't get enough of.  The author lays out the theories of other historians well, presenting their arguments before adding his own.  I especially enjoyed the photographs of some of the battle sites, along with theoretical maps of how the armies were laid out.  Also, it tickled me pink to read of how gamers are helping to write history; the author makes several references to those who roleplay out battles, using historical sources as guides and acting out how battles could have been fought based on the strategies and tactics of the time.  This can be very helpful to researchers, as it gives them an idea of how it is one side won or lost a given fight.

Also, it looks like the UK comes by its fractious and domineering nature quite naturally; it's been a habit for well over a millenium and a half.  Since the time of the Romans, that particular island has been dealing with "invaders" and learning to assimilate new groups.  Of course, that only led to an expansionist attitude in later years; it is an island, and when all the land is inhabited, you have to start looking to other places to settle.  Or, you can just feud with your neighbor until someone decides that the only recourse is bloodshed.  God, the British are an outwardly violent group for being so deeply conservative with their emotions.

So for anyone looking to dig a little deeper into what was happening in Britain and how it came to be the place it was in the Middle Ages, this is a good read.  It's remarkable to me how it all came together to form one people, one group.  This author does a fair job of filling in the blanks to explain how that happens and why the defending army of 1066 was hardly worth fighting most of the time.  Also, this is great background information for my next book, Wolfskin by Juliet Marillier; it's set in the Viking raids of the 9th century and their settlement of the Orkneys (islands off the northern Scottish coast).  I've been there in July; it was the height of gnat season, and the entire day was rainy.  They called it lovely weather.  I can see why people living in Norway might think so.

PS. Hop, you are, as ever, the only tour guide I want when exploring the ancient world, whether it's Greece, Rome, or Britain.  Thank you ever so much for the thoughtful gift; I hope I put it to good enough use!  Now all I need is book (or five) telling me what was happening in the rest of Europe after the collapse of Rome, I'll be happy.  (How many "Germanic" tribes were there, and where exactly were they living?  Dark Ages France is still on my unsatisfied curiosity list.....).

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Oh Aye, I love a man in a kilt....

And here it is, my first review of the new year!  Reading a book in four days?  That is a trend I hope to continue.  To be fair, this one went down as fast and easy as a bottle of Jameson does for an Irishman.  I bought this book before Thanksgiving, and it's been staring at me for the last month, waiting for me to finish the Black Dagger Brotherhood series.  Then I forced it wait another two weeks, promising it would be first on my list for the new year.  I kept my promise, and I have to say, the anticipation was worth the wait.

Now, with a bit of blush, I'll admit I have a bit of a thing for the so-called kilt-lifter subgenre of romance.  Come on, kilts are sexy as hell, and having been to Scotland once, I am bound and determined to return as often as possible in my life.  My husband would laugh, pointing out that Scotland and Germany have a lot in common, both in the temperament of their people and the cultural urge to pickle themselves with liquified barley and wheat.  So there is a strong appeal to my fantastically romantic side for both countries.

The Sinner by Margaret Mallory is the second book in The Return of the Highlanders series.  I read the first one either towards the end of summer, or just at the beginning of fall.  I had picked it up originally, looking for a fluff novel to read while on vacation.  Then shortly after starting it, I became engrossed with the characters and setting, and got really excited that the second one was coming out in November.  As mentioned above, it got pushed off a bit, as I was a little entrenched with the badass vampires of BDB.  Now that I have finished it, I am more than a little grumpy that I have to wait until this November to get the next one, and March of next year for the final one.

The series is set on the Isle of Skye, the largest of the Inner Hebrides and the traditional home of the Lord of the Isles.  It is 1515, just two years after the crippling defeat at Flodden by Henry VIII.  The whole of Scotland is in disarray, and we find ourselves joining in with a band of young men who are trying to reclaim their lands and set their clan to rights.  Alex MacDonald is cousin to the chieftain of clan MacDonald of Sleat. He is notorious throughout the Highlands as a man who will sleep with any willing woman, and proudly boasts that he will never marry.  Unfortunately, Fate and his chieftain have other ideas.

As a bid to help secure the aid and goodwill of another chieftain from the Outter Hebrides, Alex is asked to marry Glynis MacNeil.  Glynis has been married once, and refuses to ever do so again after the humiliation and abuse she suffered previously.  Alex's smooth ways and infamous reputation do little to win her over.  However, his past sins force the two of them into an unlikely marriage; the question is, will it last?  (A more in-depth review of the plot can be found here).

I'll grant you, it has all the hallmarks of a cheesy fluff romance novel.  Somehow, though, the author rises above it all.  The characters are well-rounded and fully present.  They have distinct voices, and realistic strengths and weaknesses.  The setting is rich, and often calls on actual historical people and events (or legends).  Alex has genuine fear of marriage, based on his own childhood misery; Glynis is serious-natured and sharp-tongued, but she only wants the kind of marriage her own parents had.  There are a few plot twists, which add a nice complexity to the story, keeping it from being too fantastic or boring.

Here's the only annoyance I have with the whole thing, and it's the cover.  The cover is symptomatic for the rest of the genre.  Romance as a genre, does not take itself seriously; more often than not, the entire genre is written off by society at large.  It is usually seen as literature written purely for women's sensibilities and full of outrageous plots that sound like something out of a soap opera.  Here's the thing though; by and large, the stories are just as complex as anything in the fantasy and sci-fi genre, and just as dramatic and meaningful as anything in the rest of the fiction section.  As a readership, the romance genre has very intelligent, discerning, and witty fans.  Why it continues to be disregarded I think rests solely on the premise that has to do with sex, love, and our societies taboos about sex and love.

Not to put it mildly, but American society has a hard time talking about sex.  Actually, let me refine that.  Our society, in general, has a hard time discussing meaningful sex and real relationships.  The thing is, real relationships take work; meaningful sex is a byproduct of that work.  We are awfully Victorian in our view of sex- it can be objectified and seen anywhere, but it cannot be discussed in any intensity for any length of time; to talk about it would mean having to acknowledge it and be responsible about it.  For this reason, we still have Victorian views of romance novels; the romance novels of the 19th century were a whole lot of flowery words and idealized emotions, with none of the hard work to attain those rarefied moments.

Like any good story, a romance novel should make you think; you should be asking yourself how you are similar to the characters, or how your reactions would be different.  They should expand your view of the world, and your place in it.  Brainiac that I am, it bugs me to no end that the covers of most romance novels pander to society's base perceptions of sex and love; we should want to hear stories of love and relationship-building, be inspired by the characters to be better husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, parents, siblings, cousins, and friends.  A hunky man on the cover of a romance book is more likely to have me looking for something else to read.  I don't need a publisher's idea of what I might find sexy glaring at me from my nightstand.  Give me a real cover, like you would have for anything else found in any other genre.  Don't try to pander to me.  Either I'm going to want to read the book because it appeals to me intellectually and emotionally (you know, the driving reasons as to why I read), or I'm going to move on to something that does hit those two spots.  If I wanted to stare at half-naked men, there are other places and ways I can do that.  Don't belittle me with your Victorian notion of whatever flowery ideal you think I want.

Ok, I think I'm done with the soapbox.  For the moment.  I might break it out again.....

Despite the irritation and rankling the cover of the book brings to me, the story itself is a good one.  The people in it are true to life; the writing is very good.  I think the author's underlying point is very well illustrated- a healthy, functioning relationship hinges on honest communication and trust.  I don't think enough of us act on that truism, and I don't just mean in our romantic relationships.  This axiom is true for any interaction between two or more people; it may seem difficult to do, but like any habit or skill, practice makes perfect.

Though I may have to grit my teeth in frustration about having to wait till the fall for the next one in this series, I am going to keep myself in the same geographical area with the next book.  For the first time in several months, I'm going to read a non-fiction book (ugh, the reality of it all!).  Many thanks to my friend Hop for the gift; it is now book number two on this year's reading list!  After that, I have a two-book series that a friend lent me; I believe it pertains to the Viking-held Orkneys, so the geography still won't change much.  Mmmm, Scotland......

Anyway, I hope you've enjoyed my first rant review of the year.  I can only hope the next 49 are just as amusing for you!