28 February 2011

Books Finished Since February 1

book icon  Intrigue, Mercedes Lackey
Mags, the wretched orphan rescued from mine work by being Chosen by the Companion Dallen, is progressing well at the new Collegium being built, but he still remains a solitary character with only a few strong friends: Bear, gifted with knowledge of herbs; Lena, a Bardic student desperately trying to do something outstanding so her talented but narcissistic father will notice her; and Amily, the handicapped daughter of the King's Own Herald, Nikolas. He is trusted enough to do little spying missions for Nikolas—until a group of Farseers have a vision of what seems to be an assassination attempt on the King with a "foreigner" involved, and Mags is the only "foreigner" in residence. And it's then that Mags' solitary life starts to work against him, as he is suspected by fellow students and courtiers alike, despite the fact he has become a star player in a new game invented to help the Heralds simulate battle situations.

I have been reading books about Valdemar since the first, Arrows of the Queen, was published. Mags' story still feels a bit like Talia's with some changes in it (if you remember, students bullied Talia as well, and even tried to drown her). This time everything conspires against our hero; even his best friends (granted, under great duress) desert him. Mags' situation just becomes worse and worse until he is driven to rock bottom; it is not an easy story to read (nor should it be, since he is under such stress, but it is a hard slog). Plus there is entirely too much time taken up with the Kirball games, which, as other critics have pointed out, bear a remarkable resemblance to Quidditch on horseback. Mags being good at the game makes him a few more real friends, ones who appreciate him for himself, not just his playing, but the descriptions of it get tedious fast, like reading an old-fashioned boys' sports book. I'm sure the training will serve Mags and his friends in some way in the final book of the trilogy, but for now the play-by-play is a tad tedious.

I would wait for the paperback on this one.

book icon  The Sisters Grimm: Magic and Other Misdemeanors, Michael Buckley
In Buckley's delicious mish-mash universe of fairy tale characters of all persuasions, things are deteriorating at a rapid rate. Sabrina and Daphne Grimm's parents are still in an enchanted sleep, the murderous mayor of Ferryport Landing (the Queen of Hearts) has levied an enormous tax on the remaining human members of town and left the despicable Sheriff of Nottingham to enforce her laws, and someone is stealing magic items for an unknown purpose. How will Granny Relda find the objects and pay the tax?

The most intriguing thing in the story is a glimpse into a possible future due to time rips opening and closing within the town. A character who disappeared in a previous novel has returned and talks the sisters into helping look for the stolen objects; what the person has suggested sounds sensible, but is there something behind it? It will be interesting to know in future books if what the girls see is their actual future or just an alternative they may want to change.

book icon  Murder on Waverly Place, Victoria Thompson
Sarah Brandt, midwife, has just recovered from finding out the truth of the murder of her physician husband, when her wealthy mother comes to her asking for help. Mrs. Decker has consulted a spiritualist in hope to contact her older daughter, Sarah's sister Maggie, who was driven away from home when her parents disapproved of her marriage, and who later died. Sarah disapproves, but goes with her mother in hopes of proving the spiritualist, an Italian girl, is a fraud. Instead, she is witness to a murder of another attendee.

This is a very talky entry in Thompson's "Gaslight Mystery" series. Frank Molloy, Sarah's love interest, is the investigating officer, and we learn a good deal about how spiritualists dupe their clients. A whopping coincidence helps solve the mystery, and there is no real progress in the Molloy/Brandt romance. The narrative was good enough to keep me reading, but the mystery is rather lukewarm.

book icon  Napoleon's Hemorrhoids, Phil Mason
"And Other Small Events That Changed History"
This is a British-published trade paperback that will please any history lover who likes bits of trivia about historical situations. As the title explains, these are tiny bobbles in history that could have led to vastly different futures had they not happened. My only complaint on this book would be is that the sports chapter is totally unnecessary; who cares about results in sports? It's not like a differing result makes any difference in history. Really, forty years later, who cares about "the Heidi Bowl" except a few fans of the sports teams involved?

book icon  The Ninth Daughter, Barbara Hamilton
Abigail Adams arrives at the home of Rebecca Malvern and knows immediately, frighteningly, that something is wrong. Rebecca, a woman who contributes to the causes of the Sons of Liberty, and who lives in poverty since being driven away from her wealthy husband by his jealous children, has vanished and another woman is murdered and horribly mutilated in her kitchen. Later the Sons of Liberty cover up the murder evidence because Rebecca knew too many secrets about them—and John Adams himself becomes one of the suspects in the murder. It is up to Abigail and British Lieutenant Coldstone to find the murderer and Rebecca—if the latter is still alive.

Despite some of the slightly improbable situations Abigail is involved in, including scoping out a strict religious colony with faithful Sergeant Muldoon, Hamilton brings daily life in Revolutionary-era Boston and the outlying towns of Massachusetts Bay come alive. Aspects of everyday living, politics, and religion are vividly portrayed. Hamilton's Boston is populated by characters both good and bad, some facing universal problems: people who marry into a family who resents her, spoiled children, abusive religious leaders, adults with problem parents. She creates British characters who are fully realized, not just two-dimensional enemies of those who seek a break with the British monarchy. Abigail is also an appealing protagonist who must juggle her investigations, her friendships, her household duties, and her role as wife and mother.

Please note that this book, while looking like a "cozy" because of its setting and protagonist, does contain some strong, unflinching scenes of violence.

book icon  Looking for Anne, Irene Gammel
Have you ever enjoyed a literary character so much that you wondered how the author came up with the idea for him or her? Since Lucy Maud Montgomery is no longer around to ask, Irene Gammel has investigated the various aspects of Montgomery's life and environment that combined to become the immortal Anne Shirley, heroine of Anne of Green Gables. As with most characters, you will find that Anne is a combination of Montgomery's life experiences while reading something of the author's troubling and often lonely life; what you might not know is that the original image for Anne's "look" came from a notorious American girl whose name was soon plastered in newspapers across the country.

Some readers will find troubling the author's inferences to Montgomery's—and perhaps Anne's—sexuality. Anyone who reads Victorian and Edwardian books that contain strong girls' friendships will note that today these behaviors often indicate lesbianism: girls held hands, danced with each other, had crushes on older girls and gave them little love-tokens, etc. Maud herself had friendships like these as a girl and then refuted them in adulthood. Since being a lesbian was forbidden territory then, there is no way to know how many of these friendships were more than that. I did not mind nor did I find such suppositions a handicap when reading this book, and found the various origins that combined to make Anne a fascinating example of how an author combines bits of reality and fancy to create a character.

book icon  Verily, Verily, Jon Sweeney
Two of the most quoted books in the English language are the King James version of the Holy Bible and the plays of William Shakespeare. In this small, appreciative volume, Sweeney recounts the history of the English-language Bible, starting from publishers who risked death to translate the standard Latin version into the vernacular: Wycliffe and Tyndale. When eventually it was published in English, the Geneva Bible held sway until James I required a Bible that would unite the English.

Sweeney also deals with unintended humor in the KJV, how renown authors used it in their works, immortal verses and apt proverbs, and the role of the KJV in modern life despite its archaisms (a glossary to many of the words is provided at the conclusion of the book). This is a nice overview of how the KJV came to be and its impact on society.

book icon  Side Jobs: Stories from the Dresden Files, Jim Butcher
These are short stories based in the universe of Harry Dresden, "Chicago's only practicing wizard," as chronicled in Butcher's 12-book (and growing) series. The first is Butcher's first attempt at creating a universe around Dresden, which also recounts his first meeting with Karrin Murphy, his contact at the Chicago police, followed by a short vignette Butcher wrote to promote the series. The remainder of the stories, save one, have appeared in various fantasy anthologies over the years, and the final story is an original published for this volume.

Well, I enjoyed them all, even the first which Butcher claims isn't quite polished. In the short stories he has taken opportunities to deal with Harry's world from other POVs, so we have a story from the point of view of Harry's half-brother Thomas, one concentrating on Billy and Georgia's wedding, one about Michael's enforced retirement after the injuries he sustained in Small Favor, and even one which teases the "'shippers" of Harry/Murphy. Even Harry's big Temple dog Mouse gets in some good action.

Warning: the final story takes place after a major plot point in the book Changes. If you haven't reached that story yet and don't like spoilers, I'd avoid the story. Good piece, though, told from Murphy's POV.

book icon  The Land of Painted Caves, Jean M. Auel
After many years Auel is releasing the sixth, and supposedly last, book in the Earth's Children series (although I read somewhere Auel has enough material for a seventh novel). Even if you have never read this series, you have probably heard of it via, if nothing else, the Daryl Hannah film of the first book, Clan of the Cave Bear. Hannah played the protagonist, Ayla, a Cro-Magnon child orphaned by an earthquake and raised by Neanderthals.

The first few books had a specific theme. Cave Bear was a "fish out of water" story. The second book, The Valley of Horses, is a survival story until right at the end where Ayla meets her soulmate, the handsome Jondalar. The Mammoth Hunters chronicles how Ayla learns to live with others of her kind, and is adopted by the people of the Lion Camp. Other adventures happen in The Plains of Passage and The Shelters of Stone, but they seemed anticlimatic.

In this book, Ayla prepares for her Zelandoni (spiritual leader) training by taking a pilgrimage to the sacred sites: the painted caves, culminating in a tour of Lascaux. In a way, that is one of the problems with this book: as Ayla, Jondalar, their baby and later young daughter Jonayla, and the First (the head spiritual leader) tour each of the tribes who live around the sacred spaces, the same things happen over and over: each must be introduced with their long titles, people must be amazed at Ayla's foreign accent and her way with animals (she has tamed two horses and also a wolf which she raised from a cub), the travois on which the First travels, etc. Although I understand Auel's need to describe everything to illustrate to the reader how the Zeladonii (Jondalar's tribe) live, the sheer description becomes daunting. Plus there is a large cast of characters, and while there are a dozen or so who stand out, after a while the names begin to blur. Is this man the drunken one, or the nice one? Is this woman the flirt, or the helpful one? One also wishes young Jonayla had been given more to do.

In the third part of the book, Ayla undergoes a revelation that will change the way the tribe sees itself, and the story moves a bit faster. Unfortunately, it also rehashes a plot from a previous volume. If you have invested yourself in the characters previously, you will probably be more patient with Auel's long-winded narration. Just be warned: it's slow going.