The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny. Really? April? I hate August.

The Cruelest Month

Read November 2015
Recommended for fans of Quebec, cozies, naps
 ★    ★    ★   

It is Easter in Three Pines, Quebec, and the locals are discussing Easter traditions and the dangers of hiding edibles outdoors when bears are emerging from their dens. But nevermind! There’s a seance to attend, but there are some abstainers–including the spirits. Jeanne says the village is too happy for them to visit. Oh, but the abandoned Hadley house is available, right? Just because Clara was trapped in the basement and the deceased owner spread malicious lies for years doesn’t mean it is a bad idea. Just not a very good one. To absolutely no reader’s surprise, one of the guests at the seance dies of fright. Or did they? Inspector Ganache is summoned once again to restore the idyllic flow of life in Three Pines. Oh, fine–the name is Inspector Gamache.

This is Penny’s third installment in the series, and the writing is starting to feel more self-assured. However, a couple of stylistic issues remain, the most significant of which is the third-person limited point of view. All along, the reader dips into a variety of perspective of both villagers and investigators. Although there is some emotional benefit, as certain events are more meaningful depending on person, ultimately, it feels like trickery. As there are a number of people actively engaged in deceiving others, it becomes clear the limited viewpoint is supposed to heighten tension at the multiple end denouements, but because we were in those person’s thoughts, it’s disappointing as well. The limitations also mean limited insight into particular characters.

As a personal issue, I still dislike the staccato style, but at least I’m getting used to it.

“She always seemed to be enjoying herself. And why not, thought Clara. After what she’d been through.”

See? Ergh! Smooth those fragments out!

Mystery plotting is likely the weakest part of the book. Ganache is no Poirot, using the little grey cells to piece together the events of the night and the characters of all involved. A cursory search and a coincidental event leads to the solution. But that’s okay, because his grey cells are off-line, distracted by the emotion caused from some malicious newspaper articles alleging his corruption. Mon dieu! Heavy handed and fairly implausible, it didn’t really square with Penny’s world-building of an upstanding guy that everyone admires and loves (except all the people that hate him with a passion). At least this time, we get to see him acting all noble and calm so we can observe how spiffy he is and his groovy, thoughtful brown eyes reading our soul.

But you know why I read this? I mean, besides book OCD? Because the language is frequently lovely. The gentle humor that occasionally peeked through was also delightful.

“Clara have always liked Odile.… She claimed to be working on an epic poem, an ode to the English of Quebec, which was suspicious since she was French.”

The bawdy caricature-based humor present in the first book has improved and become slightly more subtle. Well, except the ducks and Ruth the poet, which are not subtle at all. Duck! (Rhymes with f*ck, get it?) Fowl! I cry fowl!

But read this very clever bit that so nicely blends character, uncomfortable emotion and humor:

“Inspector Jean Guy Beauvoir watched as the last of the Crime Scene team packed up… Ripping a length of tape from a yellow roll he stuck it across the door. He repeated that several times more than he normally would. Something in him felt the need to seal away whatever was in that room. He’d never admit it, of course, but Jean Guy Beauvoir had felt something growing… Foreboding. No, not foreboding. Something else.

Emptiness. Jean Guy Beauvoir felt he was being hollowed out. And he suddenly knew that if he stay there would be just a chasm and and echo where his insides had been…

Had he known how the artist Christo had wrapped the Reichstag he might have seen a similarity. Yellow Crime Scene tape smothered the door.”

Still far too much telling instead of doing. But worth reading all the same.

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Clean Sweep by Ilona Andrews

Clean Sweep

Read November 2015
Recommended for people who want a quick, fun UF
 ★    ★    ★   

I first read Clean Sweep when it began as a free on-line serial story. It was entertaining, but seemed to be taking a paranormal romance direction in the second book, Sweep in Peace, so I stopped following the series. Peace was recently released as a Kindle book with an accompanying deal on its predecessor. In the spirit of curiosity, as well as escapism at the end of a long week, I decided to give it a re-read.

The plot centers around a young woman, Dina, who owns a mystical Inn. The neighborhood is being troubled by a particularly nasty predator, and the resident werewolf, Sean, seems disinclined to do anything except mark his territory. Needless to say, events escalate.

Characterization is, as always, stellar, particularly those characters that tend to drop in, whether it is Mr. Byrne discovering his dog, or the sardonically amoral Caldenia, who offers advice on finding an object: “I boiled him, my dear. It is still the only sure way to separate hard bits from all that flesh. And you have the added advantage of your captive being already dead, so there will be none of those annoying screams to alert the neighborhood. Good luck.

Dina is so relentlessly cheerful, positive and good, that I confess I find Caldenia’s willingness toward theoretically violence a welcome relief. I love the Inn, which takes on the personality of a loved object, and Dina’s Shih Tzu, Beast.

World-building is interesting. I love the idea of the Inn, which puts me in mind of Way Station. It went an unexpected direction, which I would have liked better if it didn’t entail so much describing. Exploring might have been a better way to do, but again–limitations of the form

There are tentative steps in the romance direction, including the requisite multiple potential love interests who are all amazingly beautiful and very hawt. Personally, I find the trope more than a little eye-rolling, but then, I’m not a romance reader.

I think the Andrews are accomplished writers who spend a great deal of time and effort sweating over their works. Unfortunately, Clean Sweep lacks the finesse their more polished (and planned) works. Normally world-building is reasonably well-integrated into their storytelling, but in this case, there’s a great deal of telling the reader through the voice of Dina. It became quite noticeable by chapter three: “trying to phone him would be useless–no innkeeper would respond to a phone inquiry,” and “Most innkeepers in my position would’ve left XX to die on the street.” It’s quite possible that this is to help the reader recall the setting/premise as the story unfolded over a period of weeks. However, as well as giving background, the information frequently serves to explain to the reader why a particular course of action will/won’t work. I felt like it was likely a reflection of the short form, as well as possible over-awareness of readers asking questions on why a particular even did/n’t occur.

I mean, really–I can see where authors may want to just write and leave social media alone. According to Andrews’ blog, they’ll often get comments on “why didn’t X do Y,” and “why didn’t Z end up with A?” A serial seems particularly open to that kind of feedback. On the positive side, authors should be flattered their creations are so real. On the negative side, I think they end up carrying some mental burden of expectation from their fan base. At least, that’s what I guess from Andrews’ more frustrated posts. Personally, I’d likely say ‘take it or leave it’ and block like crazy. But I have limited tolerance that way.

On a final note: portraits are included as we meet some of the central characters (but not the ugly ones). It didn’t work quite so well on the Paperwhite. The artwork seems decent, but reminds me a bit of pastel-drawn elves on a new-age calendar.

Don’t get me wrong: even on a bad day, the Andrews write better than most out there. I’m not unhappy I bought it. An interesting world that could be fun if they continue to play in it. I found the next installment a definite improvement.

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Finn Fancy Necromancy by Randy Henderson. It’s a dandy.

Finn Fancy Necromancy

Read November 2015
Recommended for people looking for fun UF with a little bit of depth
 ★    ★    ★    ★ 

Finn is about to breathe free air after twenty-five years imprisonment for a crime he didn’t commit, but instead of eating carb-heavy meals while trapped in a 6×8 cell, he been living a non-corporeal existence in the land of Fae. His punishment has been reliving memories from his first fifteen years of life for their entertainment while his body has been on loan, used by a Fae in the mundane world.

Just seeing those shapes and colors without having to manifest them from my own memory was enough to bring tears to my eyes. Actually, it caused butterflies to leak from the jewel-like lights that floated in the blob that served as my head, but the point is, it was damn good to see Earth again.

In the midst of transfer to his now forty-year old body, something attacks the party, killing his warden and possibly a fellow parolee. Shortly after, Finn discovers a dead body in the trailer his body’s been living in.

Perhaps I should have been more shocked by the body, but I wasn’t. Maybe because I still felt numb from the events of the transfer… Or maybe I really was just stunned by the gaudy awfulness of the changling’s tastes. It was like Rainbow Brite had been given a BeDazzler, a flock of shedding peacocks, and a credit card and told to go crazy.”

When he discovers the identity of the body, he realizes he’s being framed. He heads home to the family residence and business, certain that he’ll find help–as well as the person responsible for his imprisonment. Magical law enforcement finds him at home and gives him three days before they’ll take him in and scour his memories.

Urban fantasy can be hit or miss for me, but Henderson has something good going. Given the three day frame, the plot moves quickly. Although the focus is discovering who framed Finn, it’s more a journey of self-discovery/growth than supernatural mystery. Finn is distracted by catching up with friends and family, but perseverance pays off. Regarding plot, I might have seen a double-cross coming from Mt. Rainier, but it was only a small piece of the overall plot.

Characterization is engaging, if somewhat preoccupied with the self-discovery arc. Finn admits he is immature in many ways. But he’s also gained some insight, so he’s an interesting mix of fifteen and forty. Adjusting to his aged father and siblings, as well as his new niece, gives a chance to observe others as an outsider, comparing memories to the new reality. It feels nicely real, with the exception of his somewhat simple brother Petey, who is convinced he’s a waerwolf. Still, their relationship is sweet. Essentially a modern setting with magic that the “mundies” know nothing about, world-building is nicely integrated with the story line.

“After all the things about my life and the world that I’d found changed in the last few hours, all the things I’d realized were lost to me during my exile, Pete’s trust in me as his big brother was comforting, and I found myself wiping tears from my cheeks.”

As should be evident from the quotes, there’s also a lot of humor, as well as more than a few 1980s references. As a confused, shocked, sort-of teenager who is magically and physically underpowered, I thought it was a lot more appropriate than many other lead characters, say, for instance, a forty year-old urban wizard. Worth noting for those who are detail-oriented–I tend to not be overly hung up on logistics–but as I was re-reading, it occurred to me that a few of Finn’s comments are inappropriately current. A character who takes after Mr. T and overuses the word “fool” grows a little tiresome, but otherwise it should entertain those who feel a little 80s nostalgia.

“Zeke conked Mort on the head with the baton, not hard enough to cause any bleeding or sleepy time, but damn, that must have hurt anyway. ‘OW!’ Mort shouted, confirming the hurtiness.”

There’s something about it that just misses me. Could be a genre issue, could be a mood issue. I tend to prefer police procedural over the self-discovery arc. There’s definitely re-read potential, but I’ll likely be focused on the next book. Tone reminds me of Huff’s Enchantment Emporium. I’d highly recommend this for fans of urban fantasy.

Plus, that title! So lyrical–I can’t tell you how often I started chanting, “Finn Fancy Necromancy.”  

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Still Life by Louise Penny. Yes, it is.

Still Life

Read October 2015
Recommended for people with insomnia
 ★    ★    1/2

Middling books are the hardest to review, dontchathink?

Maybe it’s the recent time change (is there any point to Daylight Savings Time anymore?), maybe it’s the fact that I feel like I’m swimming uphill in my nursing clinical trying to get hours in, but Still Life kept putting me to sleep. A blurb (or a review, I forget which) compares her to Agatha Christie, which I suppose could be true, only it’s a version of Christie that was being paid by the word and operates only inside people’s heads, which really isn’t Christie at all.

Consider Christie’s brief character description from Crooked House about Uncle Roger, an emotional gentle giant: He collided with a screen, said ‘I beg your pardon’ to it in a flustered manner, and went out of the room. It was rather like the exit of a bumble bee and left a noticeable silence behind it.”

In Still Life, we get characters musing: The studio was growing cold and Clara wondered whether Peter, sitting across the hall in his own studio was also cold. He would almost certainly, she thought with a twang of envy, be working too hard to notice. He never seemed to suffer from the uncertainty that could freeze her, leave her stuck and frozen in place. He just kept putting one foot in front of the other, producing his excruciatingly detailed works that sold for thousands in Montreal. It took him months to do each piece, he was so painfully precise and methodical. She’d given him a roller for his birthday one year and told him to paint faster. He didn’t seem to appreciate the joke. Perhaps because it wasn’t entirely a joke.”

Goodness, no wonder I kept falling asleep. There is a great deal of telling and hardly any showing. Dialogue is employed when it comes time to discover items of significance or sum up progress. Inspector Gamache, who I liked strictly because his name bears a resemblance to ‘ganache,’ holds an informal inquest and meets with all the villagers together, reviewing the circumstances of the death. Later, he convenes with his team, reviewing clues brainstorming solutions. For those who fell asleep earlier, it’s a nice chance to catch up.

The plot is fine; nothing unusual. It is possibly even a bit predictable–as I’ve mentioned before, if I can figure out what the mystery is, it must be relatively simple. I did like a development near the end that further fleshed out a character. However, many of the characters were one note: the urbane gay couple that ran a bistro and whose main conversation seemed to be joking about being gay; the petulant, money-grabbing niece; the caustic village witch–I mean ‘poet.’ There was also a junior detective whose characterization was particularly strange. I thought perhaps she was involved to block a crucial plot point, but I think I was wrong. Overall, I’d have to say the Christie comparison wears thin. It’s not that Christie wouldn’t have had weak characters, just that in her best works they would have felt a little less farcical.

Overall though, it’s a nice little study of the small village of Three Pines in Quebec, and of the talented Inspector and his team. A bit too pastoral for my own tastes, it’s a bit more like a painting of a haystack at sunset instead of a group of women dancing. To combat the sleepies I started reading from the end, hoping to find a strong finish that would invigorate me (it’s kind of like hopscotch, a chapter or two, then flip back further). And while it did, I have no real interest in re-reading.

I’ll give the next couple a try, because my mom wants to give them a go and because my friends seem to enjoy the series. Of course, your own mileage may vary. Note that it won a first book award or two.

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Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie

Hallowe'en Party
Read October 2015
Recommended for mystery fans, classic cozy fans
 ★    ★    ★    ★   

While some of Agatha Christie’s mysteries remain immensely satisfying, there are a few that just don’t work, whether from cultural shift or a more experimental approach. I was worried when I picked up Hallowe’en Party; I had been operating with a suspicion that her best work was earlier in her extensive career. However, it wasn’t long before my concern was dismissed as I settled into an engrossing tale of Hercule Poirot investigating a murder at a Halloween party.

Poor Joyce; thirteen and a bit desperate for attention, she’s become known for telling tales. Perhaps hoping to impress Mrs. Oliver during the preparations for a Halloween party, she claims to have seen a murder. When the Halloween party is over, Joyce is discovered dead, but only Mrs. Oliver connects the earlier boast to the death–the rest of the village is prefers to blame an anonymous unstable person. She calls on dear, aging Hercule. He concurs with her fine instincts and arranges to stay with retired Inspector Spence, coincidentally living in the same village.

Hercule focuses on Jane’s tall tale, convinced the solution lies in the past. He digs into the history of the village; a disappearing au pair girl, a wealthy widow who died unexpectedly, a forger who was stabbed, a man killed in a hit-and-run, a strangled girl in a gravel pit. As he talks with the villagers, the ominous atmosphere increases.

Almost everything about the book is lovely. The writing shines, the characters are complex. Christie can paint a portrait in only a few sentences: “His friend, Mrs. Oliver, sounded in a highly excitable condition. Whatever was the matter with her, she would no doubt spend a very long time pouring out her grievances, her woes, her frustrations or whatever was ailing her…The things that excited Mrs. Oliver were so numerous and frequently so unexpected that one had to be careful how one embarked upon a discussion of them.”

The atmosphere is sinister, and the setting feels fully realized, although I still don’t understand why snap-dragon would be the capstone to a children’s party. Once again Mrs. Oliver serves as a authorial voice, particularly when Hercule notes how an author tends to co-opt characters from real people. Her bits calling out Hercule are particularly amusing:

The trouble with you is,” said Mrs. Oliver…”the trouble with you is that you insist on being smart. You mind more about your clothes and your moustaches and how you look and what you wear than comfort. Now comfort is really the great thing. Once you’ve passed, say, fifty, comfort is the only thing that matters.”

Straight from the mouth of a seventy-nine year old.

An excellent read, and well worth re-reading.

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Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman

Dark Orbit

Read October 2015
Recommended for fans of  Scalzi, lite sci-fi
 ★    ★    ★   1/2   

I don’t know that I’ve ever said this, but what this story needs is more words.

You read that right.

Sara, an exoethnologist, has just returned to her home world of Capella. Things have changed quite a bit since she was last here, most significantly, a former mentor is now a government power-player and wants her to take a position on a first-contact mission. Unofficially, he’s also like her to keep tabs on a disgraced member of his clan. She readily agrees, and shortly after she and the contact team are beamed fifty-eight light years away to the first contact ship orbiting above the inhabited planet. And that is when things really get strange.

Sara is an easy character to relate to; a natural skeptic, independent, mischievous–a narrative centering on her was an easy way to be introduced to concepts of traveling between planets and the resulting challenges of time-line management. Before long, Gilman added the journal entries of Thora, the woman Sara is monitoring. Initially, I treated the journal entries as a secondary voice, but eventually they consumed the narrative and became one of the driving story-lines, not mere background device. The result is–in my immediate opinion–a bit of a scramble. Third person, first person historical, second person, dream states, first person. More words might have smoothed some of this out.

Then there’s a plot. The beginning creates the assumption that Thora is in need of a minder, and Sara seems to fit the part. However, Sara’s given almost no information about Thora (nor time to find it out, apparently). Not long after the group is established on the ship, a guard is murdered. Strangely, it becomes an event that is quickly forgotten. Other significant events happen and are equally quickly set aside. Given the character development, it left me puzzled that any of our characters could be so sidetracked.

I was reminded of a recent Ilona Andrews post where she advised on the use of flashbacks and whether they take a reader out of the narrative. The parallel here is that the many plot lines treated with virtually equal importance took me out of whatever plot I was following at the time. Gilman should have decided which was more important–the protection/Sara/Thora mystery, the events of discovery and first-contact, the exploration of metaphysical consciousness. They don’t quite gestalt at the end, leaving me confused at what I was supposed to be reading.

What kept me going was excellent characterization and a clear strength of the story. The self-discovery of two of the characters felt quite genuine. It more than passes the Bechdel test with a variety of primary and secondary female characters interacting in many different capacities. There are a multitude of planets and cultural groups, so it is also pleasant to have a vague but present idea of future multi-culturalism, much like Star Trek: Next Generation. (Also like Star Trek, there are apparently ‘good’ cultures and ‘bad’ cultures).

I also enjoyed the metaphysics of the story, although they didn’t really evolve until mid-book. The science, however, was strictly for people that can accept a number of devices and not sweat the details. It reminded me of LeGuin and her device the ‘ansible’ that allowed instantaneous communication; there’s a bit more psuedo-science than I suspect hard-core sci-fi fans might like. But it contains a bunch of interesting concepts to play around with.

Ursula LeGuin blurbed this–not an everyday occurrence–so I was expecting something quite great. However–and I mean this in the kindest way possible–this is LeGuin Lite. It will suit readers who don’t have the patience for her slow and weighty building (a group in which I can sometimes be counted). There are Big Ideas here, but I don’t think Gilman knows exactly the story she wants to tell. An author to look out for, certainly, but not one for my shelves.

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Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz


Read September 2015
Recommended for fans of Wendig, dark UF
 ★    ★    1/2   

Dear Ferrett,

Don’t take the rating personally. It’s not you–it’s me. Really, there’s a lot to like in your book; a parallel world with ‘mancers, magic that comes out of passion, distilled magic as part of the drug trade…

Wait, not that last bit. Because while it makes absolute sense, I just don’t. I don’t do sloppy drug trade setting, and prefer to avoid realistic setting in anything but Serious Movies and Breaking Bad. Maybe its because the memory of the last kid I took care of whose ‘buddies’ dropped him off not breathing and a lovely shade of light blue at the ER. The night was capped off by calling Security when he was ripping out the IV, ready to walk out the door, and his helpless, frustrated mom who walked out before he did. I don’t like playing in that world during my free time, because I live in it at work. It is heartbreaking and maddening– there are too many assholes, a lot of sad stories, a truckload of lies–both unintentional and purposeful–and no happy endings. I suppose you might have reached that message somewhere in Flex, perhaps with the concept of Flux coming back to bite the magician in the butt, but what I mostly got was the idea that Paul would deal with the devil to achieve his goal, and if he could made drugs magic without cost, he would. The extreme characterization of a drug dealer who chains his source to a radiator didn’t really help your cause.

Let’s talk characters, particularly Paul, underdog hero. His endless guilt trips, particularly the self-flagellation about his daughter, Aliyah, and his directionless wandering in his own life did not build a character I cared about. Again, I’m willing to take blame here. I don’t have children and don’t understand the endless guilt trip Paul has about saving his kid’s life and his obsession about getting her plastic surgery. Maybe because his character doesn’t have any balance; there’s the ex-relationship, the daughter issues, the work issues. His history comes in context of an unhappy divorce and previously unhappy job. Whatever it is, I have a hard time identifying with him or even rooting for him as I watched him run on his mental gerbil wheel. The best parts were the times that Paul delved into his magic and his joy in creating order from chaos was able to shine. For the rest, well… congratulations on being able to bring a whiny, self-centered six-year-old to life (I know, I know; they all are). Your villain, not so much. If we didn’t have you switching to the villain’s perspective, I don’t think I’d know much at all.

Although, if we’re being honest, I’d have to say you should share a tad bit of the blame. The story-telling was choppy. I appreciate an experimental narrative structure in the hands of a practitioner, but chapter installments drew attention to the lack of transitions instead of facilitating them. Sometimes the chapter ended and picked up one second later. Sometimes it ended, and the next began in the future, then flashed back to the middle. It’s not a bad idea, but you need a story and style that can use the sophistication of that technique. I suppose the underdog, concealed-power plot is based on the superhero tradition, but could you have classed it up a bit? Apparently Paul is able to identify the villain through magical nausea, but lines like “focusing on her magic was like pushing his head deeper into a barf bag” isn’t going to win you much love.

The ending pulled it together in a decent way, and your writing finally had a chance to shine. I wish you luck with your series, I really do, but I have doubts I’ll continue. It’s got the underdog-double life superhero thing going for it, so I’m sure you’ll find an audience. I think it’ll especially appeal to fans of Wendig’s Miriam Black series. Which I also disliked, so you’re in fabulous company.


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4:50 From Paddington by Agatha Christie

4 50 from Paddington

Read September 2015
Recommended for fans of Christie, manor house mysteries
 ★    ★    ★    ★   

Mrs. McGillicuddy is traveling by train when she witnesses a woman being strangled in the train traveling alongside hers. She reports the incident and is promptly dismissed, leaving her to turn to her friend, the resourceful Miss Marple. Strange as it seems, Miss Marple believes her:

Mrs. McGillicuddy looked at her without comprehension and Miss Marple reaffirmed her judgment of her friend as a woman of excellent principles and no imagination.”

I always forget about that brief section in 4:50 from Paddington that feels like the beginning of the dreaded story problem: “if two trains are traveling…”


Luckily, Miss Marple soon discards that line of investigation in favor of looking for the body, because no one has been reported missing and no one was found dead on the train. As it goes in the famous Breakfast Club episode of Psych, “no body, no crime.”

Elderly Miss Marple can’t go scouring a country estate for clues, so she hires the very clever and resourceful Lucy Eyelesbarrow to take a post at the most likely spot the body was dumped. What follows is classic Christie manor mystery, filled with the usual characters given enough shading to distinguish them. The eccentric, miserly father, the dutiful daughter, and the three sons: the artistic one from abroad, the posh London businessman and the youngest, a slick grifter. Cast is rounded out by the impish grandson and his school friend, household staff, Yard Detective Craddock and, of course, Miss Marple (and Florence), with guest appearance by Mrs. McGillicuddy.

“‘I’m sure you will succeed, my dear Lucy. You are such an efficient person.’ “In some ways, but I haven’t had any experience in looking for bodies.’          ‘I’m sure all it needs is a little common sense,’ said Miss Marple encouragingly.”

Among Christie’s creations, What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw (the original title) stands out in character and plotting. Published in 1957, rather late in Christie’s career, she cleverly uses Lucy as a stand-in for Miss Marple. Lucy’s position at the manor allows her to poke into all sorts of corners as well as getting to know the family–sometimes, a little bit better than she would like. I was particularly fond of the beginning chapters establishing Lucy’s tenure and her initial attempts at poking around the estate. Grandson Alexander and his friend Stoddart-West livened up the search.

“They discoursed gravely during lunch on events in the sporting world, with occasional references to the latest space fiction. Their manner was that of elderly professors discussing paleolithic implements. In comparison with them, Lucy felt quite young.”

There’s a couple bits that feel dated, particularly the investigative line spent pursuing any “mental bends” in the family tree. The denouement too: it might have surprised me the first time through, but as I’ve slowly re-read and cataloged my Christie reads, I realize it’s an ending used before –with Miss Marple, no less! While it gets a bit silly near the end, it overall manages to maintain the air of suspense. Ah well, a fun read anyhow.

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Eight Skilled Gentleman by Barry Hughart

Eight Skilled Gentleman

Read September 2015
Recommended for fans of folklore, variety
 ★    ★    ★    ★   

Take a Shakespeare problem play, steep it in Chinese myth and add a dash of lethal mayhem and you might come close to approximating Eight Skilled Gentleman.

Master Li and Number Ten Ox are attending the public execution of Sixth Degree Hosteler Tu as imperial witnesses, despite Master Li’s well known dislike of formality. When the execution is interrupted by a dying vampire ghoul carrying a half-gnawed head, Master Li realizes there’s something strangely aristocratic about the victim that requires further investigation. They discover the rest of the victim in the Forbidden City, and after consulting with the sainted Celestial Master, are concerned the saint just confessed to the crime. But events turn out far weirder than Master Li suspects, and solving the crime will require investigating smugglers, traveling with a scarred puppeteer and his lovely shaman daughter, and tracking down mystical creatures and myths that are almost three thousand years old.

“One assumes [the artists] were half mad, and they honored their gods by carving deities in death agonies. You’re looking at an unparalleled psychological self-portrait of an exhausted race, teetering upon the edge of extinction, but don’t you see the wonder of our recent experiences? Some of the old gods were sure to survive.”

Almost too complicated to explain yet extremely simple on the surface, Hughart has truly produced a work of art. There is the seemingly straightforward investigation driving the plot, shaded with social commentary along the way (and don’t even kid yourself that Hughart is only talking about ancient Chinese culture). There is side illumination of the history of the Chinese people, and their own myths about the cultural absorption/conflict with indigenous groups. There is outright silliness, particularly with the foodie to end all foodies (literally), Sixth Degree Hosteler Tu, or the time that Master Li impersonates a grave ghoul.

“Somehow or other he got his hands on one of your memoirs!” He swiftly scanned the chicken tracks. “Usual critical comments!” he yelled. “Clotted construction, inept imagery, mangled metaphors, and so on!”

But it’s not only the complexly woven themes. Hughart plays around more than ever with the narrative. In the beginning, Master Li shares letter from a reader accusing Number Ten Ox of purple prose (no self-mocking there). The festive atmosphere of the square is conveyed in groups of shouting (“Sha la jen la!” “Hao! Hao! Hao!”). Poetry is read. The tale of a weak noble is demonstrated, complete with a broom as sword. A play within a play is performed. Prophetic dreams (as well as priapic ones) are experienced. On two occasions, one with the puppeteer and one with Number Ten Ox, we are treating to Master Li as Greek chorus, leaving me giggling out loud (“Good evening” “That’s the Miao-chia”). The narrative is far more complex than either of the other books. Most of the time it works–it turns out it is usually necessary to understand the plot–but sometimes not at well. Quite honestly, that’s about on par with my Shakespeare experiences–the play-within-a-play device generally annoys.

It’s worth noting that there are a couple of gruesome episodes, with poor Ox standing in for the audience with a heartfelt “Gligghh!” While I had my doubts for the author choice to include such scenes, it did put me in mind of the old, old tales–the one where Cinderella’s sisters chopped off their toes to fit into the glass slipper, or the one where Bluebeard has the locked room with bodies.

“Every historian is faced with a chapter in which he cannot win. If he includes the relevant material he will send his readers screaming into the night, and if he doesn’t include it he isn’t writing history.”

The first time I read, I was suffering from Tired, and as the shenanigans built, I had trouble understanding the dizzying changes in direction. When thinking about my review, I started over and re-read the entire book. Like experiencing Shakespeare again and again, each time through allows me to consider some different aspect, whether plot, emotion or lyricism. Overall, worth the time, clotted construction, inept imagery, mangled metaphors and all.

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Uprooted by Naomi Novik


Read September 2015
Recommended for fans of PNR, fairy tales
 ★    ★    ★    ★   

Once upon a time, I read myths, folktales and fairy tales. Thankfully, this was way back before Disney was ubiquitous, so I subsided on Andrew Lang‘s The [Color] Fairy Books, Ruth Manning-SandersBook of [Magical Creature]s. And even Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, though they were usually devoid of the embellishment I enjoyed. Uprooted brought back the memory of those days, of reading an unfamiliar fairy tale for the first time. I was transported as I read… at least for the first two hundred pages.  The storytelling was mesmerizing, the graceful way it moved forward in time, backward in memory, telling the tale of how Agnieszka came to be taken by the Dragon to his Tower and discover her magic and the magic of the Wood.

“That was the end of the story: no one went into the Wood and came out again, at least not whole and themselves. Sometimes they came out blind and screaming, sometimes they came out twisted and so misshapen they couldn’t be recognized; and worst of all sometimes they came out with their own faces but murder behind them, something gone dreadfully wrong within.”

Initially, characterization shone. The young women in this story are human enough to be fallible, but are also caring, determined and faithful. Agnieszka often thinks of herself as a creeping mouse, but she has spirit: “I could sleep at night again, and my spirit began to recover, too. Every day I felt better, and every day more angry.” Lovely, strong Kasia has been Agnieszka’s friend for as long as they can remember, and has been the one everyone knew the Dragon would take: “I know I’m making her sound like something out of a story. But it was the other way around. When my mother told me stories about the spinning princess or the brave goose-girl or the river-maiden, in my head I imagined them all a little like Kasia; that was how I thought of her.” I loved the way Novik noted the tension their roles placed on their relationship while still allowing them to remain fast friends. It was a well-done female friendship, and didn’t go to any of the tropey places I anticipated. The down notes on characterization come later, as Novik pulls a major switch, first garnering sympathy for a weak character and then changing motivations.

Plotting kept me guessing. There was a fairy-tale feel to it, but as events started to spiral beyond the initial set-up of self-discovery, I wasn’t able to predict where it would go. Unfortunately, one of the places it did go was a city, and once Agnieska headed there, it transformed from an intimate, personal story to one of epic scale. Agnieska’s personal journey and transformation were sacrificed for politics, losing mystical overtones in favor of mundane ones. It’s hard to put the malevolence of a single courtier on a parallel with a heartwood tree, for instance, and Novik lost the thread of the story. Nieska becomes unbelievably powerful by the time she leaves the city, freely creating spells under stressful situations, magicking escape after escape. Jaga’s book becomes a bit of a deux ex machina, showing her the way to a new spell when she needs it.  Characters who behaved a certain way out of deep-seated emotional desires suddenly were realized to be behaving another way out of political intrigue. When an army was brought into it and mobilized within days, I started skimming, depressed I was no longer hanging on to Novik’s every word. It felt like the lovely ride I was on had escaped control.

Quite honestly, it reminded me of the way Hollywood tacks on a grand finale action scene to a movie that isn’t really about action–the resulting scenes of the siege seemed over-the-top and actually did make me question Novik’s ideas of character motivations. However, I stuck with it and found that Novik was able to rein in her runaway horse. Once again the Wood was approached and the deep source of the Wood’s discontent discovered. Unfortunately, it made the calculated upheaval in the city and the following siege all the more incongruous.

Note should be made of the Dragon’s relationship with Agnieszka. At first, it feels very My Fair Lady, which lots of negative, insulting comments about every aspect of Nieshka’s character. I wasn’t surprised at the growth of emotional connection, and I thought it was handled reasonably organically. Likewise, Nieshka’s growing realization about the long lives of wizards and the growing emotional disconnection made sense. However, I was a little disappointed in how it developed, because it felt like a simple modernization (I’ll spend time on my own! Grow my own life!) of a very old romance trope. The upshot is going to be had Nieshka humanizes her calculating, emotionally distant man and will reconnect him to the roots of the world. A five start book might have pushed that conclusion harder.

Filled with richer detail than most fairy tales, it reminded me of when I read Robin McKinley’s Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast for the very first time (but you know what was better about the Beast than the Dragon? He was always kind. And he had a library of all the books ever written). I absolutely loved the first section and would have given it all the stars I had to award, but the incongruous battle lost the magic and the hasty ending only had a few moments to regain it.

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