Review: Limits of Power

November 8, 2013 at 11:34 am (fantasy)

Limits of Power
Limits of Power by Elizabeth Moon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is such a middle-of-the-series book that I hardly know what to say. A lot of important things happen, but very few conclusions are reached. Arvid Semmison, the character I’m most interested in finding out more about, seems to be marking time until his number comes up. Kieri keeps wandering further into the elven magic stuff but full understanding of what’s it all means stays just out of reach. Dorrin continues to work on fixing her duchy and on not being arrested, and her escaped family members still haven’t organized an attack. What are Dragon’s plans now that his progeny are taken care of? And Stammel!!!! I suspect Arcolin is closer to the important places and facts than everyone else, but he doesn’t know it yet.

In other words, I’d be much happier with this book if I already had the next volume in my hands so I could find out where it’s going immediately, rather than some time next year (hopefully).

Thing is, I still love this series, and my frustration is all about how it’s not getting to its conclusion fast enough. I’m enjoying the trip, but still.

Oh, and the other thing is the marketing for this book. The blurb and all makes it sound like the hostility to the sudden re-appearance of mage powers in random people is the main focus, but it just isn’t. It’s something that Arvid, Dorrin, and the Marshal-General spend time worrying about, but nothing truly major or conclusive happens with respect to it. That’s not the author’s fault, though, that’s just the marketing department trying to find something to say about it besides “The Story Continues!”

My recommendation is that if you’re not already addicted to the series, don’t start reading it until the whole thing is published.

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Review: Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook

November 7, 2013 at 6:46 pm (fantasy, nonfiction - cooking)

Nanny Ogg's Cookbook
Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received this book as a gift last year, and I understand it had to actually be shipped from Britain – apparently there is no market in the US for funny cookbooks based on fantasy-fiction characters. Besides me, that is.

Anyway, I read more than halfway through it last year and then misplaced it in a pile of other books, and only re-discovered it this week. Finishing it made a great way to procrastinate this afternoon.

You have to have at least read Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series to get the most out of this book since most of the references to the fictional world will make no sense at all if you haven’t. Really liking the series is probably a prerequisite too, because a lot (most?) of these recipes are not things one would normally make, except maybe for a Halloween party.

I haven’t tried any of the recipes myself, because the major ingredients (flour and so forth) are given in metric weight, and since I measure by volume I don’t have a kitchen scale.

Note that yes, it’s funny, but not really for kids. Though I think the scattered innuendo will go right over the heads of kids younger than 13.

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Review: Death at Daisy’s Folly

October 29, 2013 at 8:05 pm (cozy mystery, historical mystery, Reviews)

Death at Daisy's Folly
Death at Daisy’s Folly by Robin Paige
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A pleasant historical mystery series continues, this one featuring prominent historical figures (the duke and duchess of Warwick and the Prince, perhaps amongst others). Murder at a big high-society weekend house party – what could be more routine for a British mystery? It’s the characters and the progress of the investigation, and the fiddling details of the plot, that make such things fun to read.

And to my relief, it only took the authors three books to get Kate and Charles engaged! Some of these fictional romances in series books drag on for so long I just want to kick both of the characters, but these two face up to facts and decide to charge ahead, maternal and societal disapproval be damned. Huzzah!

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Review: Death at Bishop’s Keep

October 27, 2013 at 1:31 pm (cozy mystery, historical mystery, mystery)

Death at Bishop's Keep
Death at Bishop’s Keep by Robin Paige
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A nice, solid cozy-type mystery, set in 1890s Britain – with a short period in New York City to establish the character of Kate Ardleigh, the American niece of gentry spinster Sabrina Ardleigh. Kate is a self-possessed and independent young woman who wants to try making a living as a writer, but the lure of being invited to travel to England to meet and work for her previously-unknown aunt is irresistible. Besides, she can always mail her stories to her editor.

Things in Essex are not the tranquil country idyll that she was more or less expecting, what with deep-running hostility between the house staff and the mistresses (for it turns out that there are two aunts, one of them a bitter mean-spirited widow) and some unknown man being murdered and dumped in a local archaeological dig.

Kate is not the only point-of-view character; the other important one is Sir Charles Sheridan, gentleman scholar and photographer, as well as one or two others to help flesh out the story a bit. His point of view does drag on a bit with internal conflict over what women “ought to” be like versus what they’re actually like – specifically Kate, for obvious reasons.

An interesting and engaging mystery which drags in bits of actual history quite naturally, for the most part – from the occult/spiritualist craze to the ongoing efforts to development working automobiles (that bit about autos being restricted to 4 mph on town roads and having to be preceded and followed by men waving red flags? Absolutely true). So it’s good from the story, character, and history points of views.

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Review: The Dark Place

October 25, 2013 at 10:37 pm (mystery)

The Dark Place
The Dark Place by Aaron Elkins
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book and I got off to a really bad start, when clever and knowledgeable anthropologist Gideon Oliver somehow did not think of something that any Anthropology 101 student should be able to figure out. Heck, it was obvious to *me* and I’ve never actually taken an anthropology class (just hung out a lot with people who have).

Anyway, no amount of Gideon kicking himself for missing the obvious on pages 78-79 could make up for that, especially when it was blindingly obvious that Elkins only did it to provide a little suspense and some amusing difficulties for him … and possibly to provide an opportunity to rank on the stupidity of the Sasquatch legends a bit. These are not bad goals, of course, and the tactic would probably work a lot better on readers who weren’t grinding their teeth over Gideon’s denseness on this one point for most of six chapters.

Like they say, your mileage may vary.

So as the investigation trudged on and some really interesting and moderately credible things happened, I was still mentally grumbling over the beginning, and then when I became convinced that the ending would be really depressing, I put it down until the book was due back at the library the next day.

I was wrong, though – Elkins pulled a fast one that, again, would’ve worked better for me if I wasn’t already irritated.

I still like the characters, Elkins is a great character writer, and the various technical details about skeletons and a variety of other topics (though my husband swears some of those details are wrong). I won’t give up on this series just because this particular book ticked me off. Call it a 2.5 rather than a 2 rating, really.

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Review: Out of Circulation

October 15, 2013 at 6:34 pm (cozy mystery, mystery)

Out of Circulation
Out of Circulation by Miranda James
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I think this one took too long to get going – the murder victim wasn’t even found until Chapter 13, something like a third of the way through. Which is not to say that the social combat before then wasn’t interesting, but it took too long to get to that point, as well.

Except that, on the other hand, it turned out that much of what went on toward the beginning was more relevant to the subsequent investigation and plot than I first assumed. Or perhaps it was just my mood, so that the low-key development of the story frustrated me more than it could have otherwise.

At any rate, Charlie Harris is still a pleasant fellow to spend a few hours with – though some might find his conflict-averse nature stultifying – and so is his cat. Kanesha Berry continues to provide some “edge” in a setting that would otherwise be too nice for words.

The payoff for my decision to pick up and finish the book was good though – some archival research, some serious cogitating, a health scare, and a difficult decision for Charlie to make.

The next one in this series is expected out next January (2014).

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Splinter of the Mind’s Eye by Alan Dean Foster (1978)

June 7, 2012 at 7:57 am (science fiction, space opera)

Ah, nostalgia! I first read this book as a young teen, sitting on the floor of the library in the resort town we were vacationing in that summer.

Re-reading it now, I found that I remembered nothing whatsoever of the plot or even the setting – I retained only a general positive impression that I think was based partly on its exoticism and partly on the way with imagery that Foster sometimes has, and no doubt partly on the fact that Leia kicks butt.

And honestly, it doesn’t survive mature analysis very well. That clever and beautiful imagery gives it the only depth it has – it’s a straightforward adventure novel, rife with coincidence, driven by pursuit of a pseudo-scientific MacGuffin, and leading into a standard confrontation with the enemy in a collapsing ancient temple. It’s amazing that the plot works at all; that’s a testament to Foster’s basic ability as a writer (in all aspects except romance).

So I still liked it, but nowhere near as much as I did back in the day. Ah well.

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Scrapbook of Secrets by Mollie Cox Bryan (2012)

April 17, 2012 at 4:30 pm (cozy mystery, negativity)

This cozy mystery brings us to Cumberland County, Virginia.  (Apparently by reading a lot of these things, I’ll be able to vicariously visit the whole country.) And it’s also one of two series I’m aware of that have scrapbooking as the, hmm, creative focus of the characters.

There’s a lot to like about this book, such as: characters ranging in age from youngish moms to outright elderly; a Jewish point-of-view character who actually struggles with issues related to being Jewish in exurban Virginia; acknowledgment of racial issues (at least in the past); generally matter-of-fact dealings with issues of sex and sexuality and infidelity.  And I’m okay with the slight supernatural element (ghosts).

Unfortunately, it has no narrative tension.  The story meanders through multiple points of view, which is generally interesting but does little to advance the plot.  I think the author’s goal was to explore the repercussions of the victim’s murder and of her activities prior to her death.  Laudable, certainly, but the result is a series of incidents that connect poorly to each other and don’t create much of a feeling of progress toward the goal of solving the mystery.  This may be like reality, but reality doesn’t make a good narrative.

Also, I was really annoyed by certain characters’ decision to go off and confront the probable murderer.  They’re both smarter than that … and then the whole confrontation fizzled rather than exploding.

The bones of a good story are here; it just needed to be executed better.  I may give the forthcoming second volume of the series a chance, but I’m not sure.

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Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear (2012)

April 16, 2012 at 8:41 pm (fantasy, Reviews)

This book is magnificent, and I’ve been trying to come up with a review worthy of it.  Silly of me, I know, and I’ll stop now.  So:

This book is magnificent.  It provides all that the dedicated reader of fantasy fiction requires for a superlative reading experience – an exotic setting (quasi-Central Asia!), distinctive characters (one horse-obsessed ~mongol warrior, one ~tibetan magician, one ~arab priest/magician/villain, among others), and a sinewy plot that somehow manages to admire the scenery while racing forward to … a good stopping-point for Volume 1, with a real sting in its tail.

Things I really liked:  The way the sky changes from realm to realm.  The horse called Dumpling.  The villain not always succeeding in controlling events.  Necessity.  Butterflies.  The best initiation narrative that it has ever been my privilege to read. The facts that heroism requires putting one foot in front of the other on the correct path, magic requires sacrifice, and evil requires the conviction that anything – anything at all – is justified in order to reach a desired end.  That sneaky, sneaky trick the villain played on the girl.  And did I mention the horse?

The plot itself is not especially complicated: war and treachery and chaos-sowing evil, curses, oaths, escapes and long journeys.  At a certain point, it turns into a quest story, which is fine by me.

If I may digress, I was once told that a piece of my own writing was good, but lacked “grounding.”  This is, I was informed, a bit difficult to define, but consists of placing the characters in their contexts in ways that make both feel immediate, fully fleshed-out, and real.  It’s tricky.  Some are better at it than others.  This author is excellent at it.  As Temur plods across the plain, as Samarkar meditates in the dark, as al-Sepehr contemplates his deadly crystal book of spells, the characters and circumstances are as convincing as any reality you care to name.

The book is not flawless – but what book is?  In this case, I find Samarkar to be rather cold, as if she’s willingly substituted dedication to her goals for everything else in life.  I am uneasy with the fact that the evil guy’s religion venerates a written text, as do the monotheistic faiths in the real world (yes, he’s leader of a small cult, but he’s also the only representative of his faith that we see in this book).  And every time Temur has the point of view, we get detailed descriptions of any new horse the narrative happens to introduce, which gets a little tiresome (I did mention horse-obsessed, so at least it’s consistent with his character … and can easily be skipped over).

But overall? Wow.  This thing has depth; the narrative is suspended over history.  It’s awesome.  It’s as good as anything Guy Gavriel Kay has ever written (and better than some).  You’ll see what I mean, because you are going to read this book.

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Four Cozy Mysteries

March 30, 2012 at 9:17 am (cozy mystery, mystery)

My public library got me through the first part of my illness earlier this week – by pure happenstance, I got these four books out a day or two before it started.

Wendy Lyn Watson’s A Parfait Murder (2011) is the third of her “Mystery à la Mode” series (the other two of which the library doesn’t have!).  I was short on emotional resources when I first started reading it, however, so heroine Tallulah Jones’ emotional pyrotechnics were a bit too much and I had to put it aside till I felt better.  Set in Texas, it features the hard-working divorced owner of an ice-cream shop (“Remember the A-la-Mode” – don’t judge, it’s memorable, at least) and her equally hard-working family: cousin, niece, and tough-as-nails grandmother.  And a murder committed on a carnival ride.  The book offers more of an emotional roller-coaster for the characters than a lot of the cozies do, and with its strong characters and multitude of plot twists, I suspect the series will make a nice change of pace for a lot of readers.

Really, the only thing it was missing was a recipe for actually making ice cream.  Ah well.

Next up: another Texas-based book, A Peach of a Murder by Livia J. Washburn (2006), first of an intended Fresh-Baked Mystery” series.   Here, heroine Phyllis Newsom is a retired schoolteacher whose peach cobbler is the last item one of the festival food judges tastes before he keels over, poisoned!  The other two deaths don’t appear to form a pattern … but there is one, and a rather sad one at that.  With a hint of potential romance arriving with a new boarder in Phyllis’s house – another of several retired schoolteachers – and comfortingly competent law enforcement, it looks like a series with solid potential.  (A little further investigation reveals that though this book is new to me, the series has already gone on for several additional books!)

The second “Magical Cats Mystery” by Sofie Kelly is called Sleight of Paw (2011), and it was just as fun as the first one (Curiosity Thrilled the Cat).   It’s possible that I’m more biased toward librarians as heroines than toward ice-cream entrepreneurs or retired schoolteachers (even retired history teachers).  Or perhaps I just like the presence of a little magic in this one – part of the relatively new trend that’s been gently folding urban fantasy elements into cozy mysteries.  Kathleen Paulson, library director in a smallish Minnesota town, is pretty sharp, if a bit handicapped by the fact that telling anyone about her cats’ peculiar abilities would make folks think she was nuts.  (Though I do think she’s a bit too anxious over what people will think about her occasionally carrying her cats around with her.)  I also like her unusual background as a child of theater people.  Anyway, the apparently-accidental death of a retired school principal leads to a lot of anxiety, as multiple well-regarded members of the community seem to be potential suspects, including a close friend of Kathleen’s.  I’ll admit I was pretty sure who the real culprit was, but the author kept it uncertain enough to hold my interest.  Definitely a series I’ll be keeping an eye out for.

Finally, Monica Ferris’ fifteenth “Needlecraft Mystery” is Threadbare (2011), and it seems to me that her basic writing level has definitely kicked up a notch.  I thought this was happening with the last one (Buttons and Bones), but now I’m positive.  There are multiple points of view that are deftly handled, the pacing is excellent, the characters seem indefinably more definite, and the range of topics explored is firmly branching out from “just” needlework to parts of the world around – in this case, the lives and options of homeless women, two of whom are the victims.  Betsy Devonshire, the small-town Minnesota needlework shop owner and amateur sleuth of this series, works hard to figure things out and is eventually able to apply logic and evidence to the problem, sorting out who the culprit is in a believable fashion.  But I’m most pleased about the author’s step up in skill level – it’s a great pleasure to see an already-accomplished person get even better.

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