Friday, April 30, 2010

The Lost Symbol

Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon agrees to do a favor for his old friend, Smithsonian Museum director Peter Solomon, by giving a lecture in the Capitol rotunda when the scheduled speaker cancels at the last minute.  But when he gets there he finds he has been brought to Washington on false pretenses, his good friend is in considerable danger, a very scary lady from the CIA is demanding his help on an unspecified matter of national security, and somehow the Freemasons are mixed up in it all in ways that could cause worldwide political and economic disaster.

I wasn't first in line to read this book when it came out a while ago, but I always figured I'd get to it.  I quite liked The Da Vinci Code, though I wasn't as bowled over by it as a lot of people seemed to be; possibly because I'd already heard of the theory about what the Holy Grail really was.  I thought it was an acceptably entertaining potboiler, and that's pretty much what this one is too.  Some of the predicaments Langdon gets into are genuinely thrilling, and I'll probably go see the movie when they make one.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Mapping of Love and Death

In 1932, the remains of a cartography unit missing since 1916 are uncovered in France.  One of the men was an American, allowed into the British army because his father was born in England and because his specialized skills were needed so badly, and papers found on his body indicate he had conducted a romance with an English nurse during the war.  His parents hire Maisie Dobbs, psychologist and investigator, to find the woman who wrote the letters.  But his father has an additional request: find the man who murdered his son just before the whole unit was shelled and buried.

I wasn't sure I liked the direction the Maisie Dobbs series seemed to be going in the last couple of installments, particularly the sudden revelation of Maisie's hitherto un-hinted-at gypsy heritage and psychic faculties, but this volume seemed to be something of a return to form.  Maisie does a bit less psychologizing than in some of the others, but manages some top-notch investigating, and developments in her private life are nicely integrated into the story.  I'm quite interested to see where the character goes from here.

Monday, April 26, 2010


I suppose it can't really count as a spoiler if it's mentioned in a book's first line, never mind that it was revealed on the author's website and (I'm told) his Twitter feed prior to publication, plus it's in the jacket copy, but I still feel like I ought to warn people to brace themselves for this one:  Harry Dresden has a daughter.

It comes as a shock to him too.  The girl's mother, Susan Rodriguez, exited the series seven books ago after an attack by Red Court vampires began the process of turning her into one of them; she joined the Fellowship of St. Giles to fight both the Red Court and her own half-vampire nature.  Now it turns out she hid her child from everyone, including Harry, to protect her, but word of her got back to exactly the wrong vampire, and little Maggie has been kidnapped by Red Court Duchess Arianna Ortega.  Harry knows he'll need more power than he and his personal friends can raise to rescue his child, and when every supposedly good entity he goes to for help turns him down, for what seem to them to be insurmountable reasons, more questionable sources of power come inevitably to mind.

Twelve books into the series, it's getting difficult to summarize a new entry without recapping a hell of a lot of backstory.  I'm not really complaining about that; one of the things I really like about the series as a whole is the way that seemingly minor characters or plot points in early books later turn out to have much more significance than they appeared to at first.  This volume even has a callback to the barely competent sorcerer Harry defeated in the very first book, Storm Front, and includes nearly all of the supporting cast Harry has built up over the whole series, though a number of them (Marcone, Kincaid, and the archangel Uriel among these) only make cameo appearances.

This one is also the first to end on such an appalling cliffhanger.  And I have to wait another year to find out what that last page meant?  I'm also really looking forward to exploring the ramifications of some of the hard choices Harry had to make this time, and I'm just glad Jim Butcher has no record of missing his deadlines. 

Friday, April 23, 2010

Dead and Buried

Benjamin January, surgeon and musician, is playing at the funeral of a fellow member of the Faubourg Tremé Free Colored Militia and Burial Society when a drunken pallbearer stumbles, the coffin splits open, and the body of a white man falls out.  That's the first shock; the second is that Hannibal Sefton, January's disreputable white friend, immediately recognizes the corpse as a friend from his long-ago days at Oxford.

I picked up a copy of Barbara Hambly's new historical mystery at the Public Library Association conference in Oregon last month, and the publisher's rep remarked that at Severn House they all sat up and took note when the orders for it started rolling in even before it was reviewed anywhere.  It's been six years since the previous installment, and I'm sure I wasn't the only reader who reacted with glee to the news at the author's website that a new publisher had picked up the series and we'd finally be getting a new one.  I recommend this whole series to everybody I know; you can pretty much read them in any order, but I think it does help to start with the first one, A Free Man of Color.

The mysteries are great, but the characters and setting are even better; the novels give a wonderful sense of what it was like in New Orleans in the 1830s, and especially what it was like for the free black community.  The supporting cast is strong, and it was particularly cool in this new one to finally find out a little about Hannibal's life before he washed up in New Orleans, eking out a living by playing fiddle.  I tore through this novel in a couple of days, and I hardly ever do that any more.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Fables, vol. 13: The Great Fables Crossover

Jack Horner returns to Fables from his own book to give warning of a threat to the universe as they know it: Kevin Thorn, the Writer, now has the power to obliterate the Fables' whole existence with a stroke of his pen, once he overcomes his idiot brother, Writer's Block.

I get all my Fables, like all my comic books these days, not in monthly magazines but in the trade paperback compilations, and I have not been keeping up with the Jack of Fables spinoff series. I read the first volume, and there wasn't a page--there was barely a panel--that didn't make me want to hit the main character over the head with a baseball bat while muttering Daffy Duck's immortal line, "Jack--you're a jerk."  I can only assume he's written to be that obnoxious on purpose, but I can't imagine to what end. Me, I wholeheartedly and unreservedly despise the guy, and I just don't want to read about him.

So it was with some consternation that I found myself agreeing with Jack when he introduced one installment of this story by grumbling that this should have been called the Great Jack Crossover instead.

Make no mistake, this is primarily a Jack story, not a Fables story, for all that Bigby Wolf and Snow White are in at the big finale. That said, I don't recommend that Fables fans skip this one; even though it doesn't much at all advance the main Fables storyline about Mister Dark, some of the side story about what's going on at the Farm looks like it has the potential to be important later, and the introduction of Jack Frost, son of the Snow Queen, was so much fun I might actually look into Jack of Fables again to see what Jack Frost is up to.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Play of Treachery

When Joliffe the player agreed to serve the Bishop of Winchester in a confidential capacity, he didn't expect to be sent to France; but there he finds himself, beginning his official training in spycraft in the household of the very young widow of the Duke of Bedford.  While he practices with weapons, ciphers, and maps, he also comes to perceive undercurrents in the household, and when the hints of secrets lead to the murder of one of the young Duchess's ladies, his studies suddenly have a practical application.

Joliffe is changing, and he's not sure it's for the better.  His last guest spot in one of Margaret Frazer's "Dame Frevisse" series of medieval murder mysteries was set many years later than his previous appearances in her series or his own, and it was kind of a shock to see where the author thinks he'll end up when the intermediate steps of how he gets to that point haven't been written yet.  He's been an unofficial or semi-official investigator in previous books, but this novel starts the process of turning him into a pro, taking him from the sharply observant actor he's always been from his first appearance in The Servant's Tale to the solitary expert spy of The Traitor's Tale.  It may not be a comfortable journey for him, but for the reader it looks like it's going to be well worth making.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Now that I've given this site a fake archive by copying all the posts I wanted to save from my mostly defunct MySpace blog, how about a book meme to mark the start of new content?

Because I am a librarian, here is the ALA's list of the 100 books most frequently banned or challenged in American libraries in the decade 2000-2009.  The ones I've read are marked in bold print.  How many of these have you read?  I've only gotten to 26 of them (counting the whole Harry Potter series as one entry), which I guess means I have some reading to do before Banned Books Week rolls around again this fall.

Harry Potter (series), by J.K. Rowling
2 Alice series, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier
4 And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson/Peter Parnell
5 Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
6 I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
7 Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz
His Dark Materials (series), by Philip Pullman
9 TTYL; TTFN; L8R, G8R (series), by Myracle, Lauren
10 The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
11 Fallen Angels, by Walter Dean Meyers
12 It’s Perfectly Normal, by Robie Harris
13 Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey
14 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
15 The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
16 Forever, by Judy Blume
17 The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
18 Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous
19 Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
20 King and King, by Linda de Haan
21 To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
22 Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily von Ziegesar
23 The Giver, by Lois Lowry
24 In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak
25 Killing Mr. Griffen, by Lois Duncan
26 Beloved, by Toni Morrison
27 My Brother Sam Is Dead, by James Lincoln Collier
28 Bridge To Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson
29 The Face on the Milk Carton, by Caroline B. Cooney
30 We All Fall Down, by Robert Cormier
31 What My Mother Doesn’t Know, by Sonya Sones
32 Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya
33 Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson
34 The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things, by Carolyn Mackler
35 Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging, by Louise Rennison
36 Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
37 It’s So Amazing, by Robie Harris
38 Arming America, by Michael Bellasiles
39 Kaffir Boy, by Mark Mathabane
40 Life is Funny, by E.R. Frank
41 Whale Talk, by Chris Crutcher
42 The Fighting Ground, by Avi
43 Blubber, by Judy Blume
44 Athletic Shorts, by Chris Crutcher
45 Crazy Lady, by Jane Leslie Conly
46 Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
47 The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby, by George Beard
48 Rainbow Boys, by Alex Sanchez
49 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey
50 The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
51 Daughters of Eve, by Lois Duncan
52 The Great Gilly Hopkins, by Katherine Paterson
53 You Hear Me?, by Betsy Franco
54 The Facts Speak for Themselves, by Brock Cole
55 Summer of My German Soldier, by Bette Green
56 When Dad Killed Mom, by Julius Lester
57 Blood and Chocolate, by Annette Curtis Klause
58 Fat Kid Rules the World, by K.L. Going
59 Olive’s Ocean, by Kevin Henkes
60 Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson
61 Draw Me A Star, by Eric Carle
62 The Stupids (series), by Harry Allard
63 The Terrorist, by Caroline B. Cooney
64 Mick Harte Was Here, by Barbara Park
65 The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien
66 Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred Taylor
67 A Time to Kill, by John Grisham
68 Always Running, by Luis Rodriguez
69 Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
70 Harris and Me, by Gary Paulsen
71 Junie B. Jones (series), by Barbara Park
72 Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison
73 What’s Happening to My Body Book, by Lynda Madaras
74 The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold
75 Anastasia (series), by Lois Lowry
76 A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
77 Crazy:  A Novel, by Benjamin Lebert
78 The Joy of Gay Sex, by Dr. Charles Silverstein
79 The Upstairs Room, by Johanna Reiss
80 A Day No Pigs Would Die, by Robert Newton Peck
81 Black Boy, by Richard Wright
82 Deal With It!, by Esther Drill
83 Detour for Emmy, by Marilyn Reynolds
84 So Far From the Bamboo Grove, by Yoko Watkins
85 Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, by Chris Crutcher
86 Cut, by Patricia McCormick
87 Tiger Eyes, by Judy Blume
88 The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
89 Friday Night Lights, by H.G. Bissenger
90 A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L’Engle
91 Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Graighead George
92 The Boy Who Lost His Face, by Louis Sachar
93 Bumps in the Night, by Harry Allard
94 Goosebumps (series), by R.L. Stine
95 Shade’s Children, by Garth Nix
96 Grendel, by John Gardner
97 The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende
98 I Saw Esau, by Iona Opte
99 Are You There, God?  It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume
100 America: A Novel, by E.R. Frank

Monday, April 19, 2010

Turn Coat

Private investigator and professional wizard Harry Dresden has spent half of his adult life looking over his shoulder for Donald Morgan, Warden of the White Council; Morgan's been watching for any infraction of the Laws of Magic, so that he could execute Harry on the spot with the Council's blessing.  And now Morgan has collapsed at Harry's door in a bloody heap, after asking to be hidden--from the Wardens.


I read the first couple of Dresden Files when they were new, and really liked the character and the concept, but the third one lost me halfway through.  I didn't like where I thought I saw it going, and I just wasn't in the mood for vampires, and I put it down unfinished.  Always meant to go back to it, somehow never did, though I was vaguely aware of the series as the years went by.  Oh look, there's a new one out, I should go back and read those.  Oh look, they've made the jump from paperback originals to hardcover, good for him, I should read those.  Oh look, there's a graphic novel--

It was the graphic novel Welcome to the Jungle that really made me sit up and think, I need to read those now.  I got hold of it in February, and by the first week of March I'd read all ten of the extant novels, then had to wait a month for this one, the eleventh, to come out.  Waiting a year for book 12 is going to be difficult.

The great thing about reading the whole series in a breathless rush like I just did is that that made it easier to track the character development and the interweaving plot lines.  Harry has clearly matured over the ten or twelve years of internal chronology, and I'm very much looking forward to seeing what changes are in store for him before we get to the big apocalyptic trilogy that Jim Butcher promises to cap off the series.

Originally posted at MySpace 4/18/09


Mirasol was a beekeeper, good at it and happy in it, when the mantle of the Chalice unexpectedly fell on her with the death of the previous holder.  Without training, without help outside of books, she fought to hold the province together--literally, in some cases, as she has to close a crevasse in a neighbor's farm when his cows start to fall into it--until the true Master of the province could return and take control.  But the previous Master's heir was sent off to become a Priest of Fire, and has gone so far into Fire that he may not be able to live among humans again; and though a new, unrelated candidate for Master is waiting in the wings, the transition to a new ruling family could be disastrous.

Robin McKinley turns from more contemporary fantasy to a fairy tale setting.  The system of land magic, where the Master and the Chalice are roles in a ruling Council responsible for the maintenance of the land itself as well as for the good of the people living on it, is never fully explained; the reader finds out about it piecemeal, much as Mirasol is forced to piece together her own training for the job.  I really enjoyed it, but then I like the kind of story where not everything is spelled out for me.

Originally posted at MySpace 11/24/08

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Bell at Sealey Head

Judd Cauley would rather read than run the inn he owns with his blind father, but their cook is so awful they rarely have guests, so he has a lot of time to read.  Raven Sproule is courting the daughter of the richest merchant in town, but Gwyneth Blair would rather write stories.  Up at Aislinn House, Lady Eglantyne is dying, or perhaps fading, and Emma the housemaid sometimes finds a completely different house behind the doors she opens.  Then a young scholar arrives to investigate the one thing that is the same in both worlds, the unseen bell that rings every day at sunset.

It's hard to summarize a Patricia McKillip novel, and there's not much point in trying.  To give any accurate impression of what it's like I'd have to read out the entire book.  McKillip is one of my favorite fantasy writers working today, not least because (gasp) she can tell a whole story in one book instead of going in for these Bloated Epics that seem to be so popular now.  But the main reason I snap up every one of her new books as soon as it comes out is that her writing style is so amazing: poetic and lyrical, but not overblown.

Originally posted at MySpace 11/23/08

Four Queens

Thirteenth-century Count Raymond Berenger V of Provence had four beautiful daughters: Marguerite, Eleanor, Sanchia and Beatrice. Royal marriages at the time were formed for political and financial advantage, but even though Provence had little strategic importance and its count was always in debt (frequently taking out loans and pledging the same castles over and over as security), all four sisters married into royalty, and all were crowned as queens. Marguerite was Queen of France and Eleanor Queen of England. Sanchia and Beatrice married their sisters' younger brothers-in-law, Richard of Cornwall and Charles of Anjou; Richard was the richest man in England, and bought enough electors of Germany to be crowned King of the Romans, while Charles was offered the kingdom of Sicily by the pope.
Nancy Goldstone's book about the sisters, Four Queens, is subtitled The Provençal Sisters who Ruled Europe, and the author ably demonstrates that not all medieval women were the helpless ornaments that we now sometimes assume they were. The queens' mother and their mothers-in-law were all capable women with a strong influence on European politics as well. Great stuff.

Originally posted at MySpace 3/1/08

Saturday, April 17, 2010


Some 200 years after actual fire-breathing dragons are discovered in the wilds of Australia, Draco australiensis is seriously endangered.  Among the small number of dragon sanctuaries is Smokehill, a National Park in North America, where Jake Mendoza has grown up with his parents, the directors of the park.  Since the death of his mother two years ago, his father has been kind of overprotective, but finally agrees to let Jake go out into the park with one of the Rangers and then go on for an overnight solo hike. 

Jake walks straight to a dying dragon lying next to a dead poacher and the dragon's newborn babies, also dead--all but one.  But the only thing more illegal than killing a dragon is acting in any way to preserve the life of a dragon.

Robin McKinley is one of my favorite fantasy writers.  Her retellings of fairy tales are very evocative.  Lately she's been writing more in the urban fantasy vein--her book before this one, Sunshine, is the best vampire novel I've read in some time--although this one is more like wilderness fantasy, since there's absolutely nothing urban anywhere in it.  Still, the setting is contemporary, and rigorously realistic.  Aside from the dragons, of course.  It just makes the dragons seem more realistic as well.  Great stuff, and highly recommended.

Originally posted at MySpace 1/21/08


Giselle is beautiful, with masses of red hair, and lives in a tree house which her animal friends are happy to assist her in maintaining, at least until the man of her dreams appears in her life, as she is sure he will.  Edward is a handsome prince whose main pastime is troll hunting, but who is beginning to feel something is missing from his life.  Both of them tend to burst into song quite a lot.  When Giselle literally falls into Edward's arms, they immediately agree to get married the very next day, because we are not just in Disney Land or Disney World, kiddies, this is the Disney Universe, beautifully rendered in the kind of 2D hand-drawn animation that not even Disney does much any more.

The obligatory evil queen/witch is Edward's stepmother, who fears being deposed if Edward marries.  So she pushes Giselle down a magic well, and Giselle, now played by Amy Adams, emerges from a manhole in Times Square in her ridiculously poofy wedding dress.  Robert, the cynical (or realistic, if you like) divorce lawyer whose young daughter demands that he rescue the princess in distress, thinks she escaped from a Hallmark card, which is not far wrong.  Luckily one of Giselle's friends (a chipmunk) witnessed her fall into the well, so before long Prince Edward and Pip the chipmunk also burst out of the manhole in search of her.  Queen Nerissa can't have that, so she sends a henchman to sabotage any attempt at rescue, and later follows herself to make sure the job is done right.

I really liked this movie.  I am, of course, susceptible to fairy tales, and make no mistake: this is an affectionate sendup of all the Disney classics--pay attention to who's on the screen when you hear snatches of other cartoon soundtracks!--but it is a fairy tale in its own right, not a subversion of the genre.  I saw it with my friends the Brit and the Frenchwoman earlier this month, and the Brit was kind of disappointed in the conventionality of the happy ending (and I'm not giving anything away here, because come on, it's Disney); she liked Robert the lawyer's early attempts to protect his daughter from fairy tale expectations.

I never had any illusions that Prince Charming was coming for me on a white horse, even as a kid.  But I do like a movie with a happy ending.

Originally posted at MySpace 12/24/07

Friday, April 16, 2010

Her Royal Spyness

In 1932 Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie Rannoch ("Georgie" to her friends) has just turned 21 and had her allowance cut off by her impecunious half-brother, the Duke of Rannoch ("Binkie").  As a member of the British royal family, no matter how minor--she's 34th in line for the throne, by her calculations--her education has been more decorative than practical; nonetheless, Georgie sets off for London (without even a maid, much to her sister-in-law's horror) to make her own way in the world somehow.  Becoming a detective wasn't an option she had in mind, but she turns her hand to it all the same when she comes home one night to find a body in the bath, and her brother is accused of the murder.

This is the first in mystery writer Rhys Bowen's new cozy series.  I quite liked her contemporary mysteries set in Wales, featuring Constable Evan Evans, though her other historical series, set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York and featuring Irish immigrant Molly Murphy, didn't grab me so much.  This book was great fun, though, and reminded me strongly of Carola Dunn's Daisy Dalrymple series, though that's set about ten years earlier.  Great characters and lots of humor. 

Originally posted at MySpace 12/14/07

Reserved for the Cat

Ninette Dupond's father vanished when she was a child, and her mother has recently died.  A moment of glory on stage, dancing the title role of La Sylphide when the prima ballerina is unexpectedly injured, turns into disaster when one review is a little too good, and Ninette loses her position with the Paris Opera Ballet at the insistence of the star.  Then the tabby cat that hangs around her house speaks in her mind, and tells her he can make her a star if she just does what he tells her.

This is the latest in Mercedes Lackey's Elemental Masters series, a set of historical fantasy novels retelling fairy tales in early 20th-century settings.  The common thread is a theory of magic based on the four elements, Earth, Air, Fire and Water.  I like all of these, and the ones where the base fairy tale is not immediately obvious are my particular favorites.  I was almost at the end of this one before I realized what tale it was, though once I'd guessed it I could see there were earlier episodes that should have tipped me off.

Originally posted at MySpace 12/13/07

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Becoming Jane

Jane Austen never married.  When she was about twenty, she had a flirtation with one Tom Lefroy, an Irish relative of her (much older) friend Mrs. Anne Lefroy.  He couldn't afford to marry her, and at the end of his visit to his relatives they went their separate ways.

From these sparse facts a movie has been spun, with Anne Hathaway doing a creditable English accent as Jane (though I didn't see this one with my British friend, as I did Miss Potter, so I'm not sure what her verdict on the dialect would be) and James McAvoy as Tom, depicting their flirtation as extremely similar to the courtship of Darcy and Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, starting in mutual disdain and coming around to a passion that can't be denied...except that, as we know from history, Jane Austen never married Tom Lefroy or anyone else.

It's the kind of movie that makes me want to find a  book that'll tell me the real story, because I know that wasn't it.  But it was pretty to look at, well acted all around, and adequately entertaining for a Sunday matinee.

Originally posted at MySpace 9/16/07

The World Without Us

An article on animal and plant life in the vicinity of Chernobyl--unexpectedly thriving in the absence of humans in spite of the radiation level--led author Alan Weisman to expand the question to what would happen if people disappeared everywhere.  Assuming we didn't destroy ourselves in some messy way that would affect the rest of the planet, but were just quietly removed from the picture as of now, what would come next? 

Some of the speculation is optimistic, some not so much.  Talking about what might happen to landscapes or species without any further human interference requires a good deal of background on what we've done to them already, and some of that made difficult reading.  The prospect of what's likely to happen next assuming that humans carry on as we've been doing lately is mostly outside the scope of the book, though the author did have an interesting (and, I think, extremely unlikely) suggestion for how not to screw up the world even more.  Very interesting book.

Originally posted at MySpace 8/16/07

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Empire of Blue Water

Henry Morgan hated being called a pirate.  As far as he was concerned, he was a privateer, and his attacks on Spanish settlements were all part of his patriotic service to his own country, first under Cromwell and later under the restored King Charles.  The fact that they also made him fabulously wealthy was a side benefit, secondary to the fact that his successes against Spain led to his being knighted and appointed deputy governor of Jamaica--at which point he turned around and worked on eliminating his former buccaneering colleagues.  It was all part of serving his king.

Empire of Blue Water, by Stephan Talty, takes an interesting tack in tying Captain Morgan's career to the rise and fall of Port Royal, Jamaica, at one time the wickedest city in the Western Hemisphere.  Unfortunately, the author also chooses to create a composite character to illustrate the experiences of a typical pirate of the time, and the interjection of Roderick into Morgan's documented campaigns adds a disorienting note of fiction to the proceedings.  It's a readable and interesting book, but I wasn't always sure the author was taking it seriously.

Originally posted at MySpace 6/23/07

The Children of Hurin

I've been reading the new book by J.R.R. Tolkien, who has been dead for 34 years.  It's a story I'm familiar with from its iterations in The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and The Lays of Beleriand: Húrin, the lord of the (human) House of Hador in the First Age of Middle-Earth, is an ally of the Noldor Elves in their interminable war against Morgoth, the force of evil, until he is captured in battle.  When he still refuses to knuckle under, Morgoth curses him and his whole family, and Húrin's son Túrin and daughter Niënor grow up under the curse unbeknownst to them.  The book is mostly about Túrin and how everything he ever does turns out badly for him and those who love him...and, really, for everyone around him whether they love him or not.

It's a story that must have been close to Tolkien's heart, seeing as how he spent pretty much his whole adult life writing and rewriting it in prose and in intricate alliterative verse.  It's also bloody depressing, without a paragraph or even a line of redemption for anybody in it.  The emphasis on man's inability to escape his fate is very strong.

But I think it works better as a standalone tale between its own covers than it does as a chapter in a longer book.  The illustrations by Alan Lee are great as well.  Far be it from me to argue with Christopher Tolkien, who has been editing his father's papers almost as long as I've been alive, but I disagree with his decision to end the tale rather abruptly after the death of Túrin, then append an awkward epilogue about the parents; either leave them out entirely, or give them their own chapter! But I'd love to see the other two of Tolkien's three "Great Tales" given the same treatment, though I don't know if that's possible given the extant variations.

Originally posted at MySpace 4/27/07

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Miss Potter

An unmarried woman in her thirties in early twentieth-century England could have a pretty hard time.  At 36, Beatrix still lived at home with her parents.  She couldn't go anywhere without a companion to maintain the proprieties.  But she had written a story, illustrated with her own paintings, that she thought would be worth publishing, and publishers Frederick Warne and Co. agreed that The Tale of Peter Rabbit was thoroughly charming. Her parents disapproved of her association with a family "in trade," but Beatrix Potter found that she approved of the youngest Warne brother Norman more and more.

I have to admit I've never really read anything about the life of Beatrix Potter, so I can't say how historically accurate this movie was.  I saw it with a British friend, who said all the lovely Lake District scenery made her very homesick; she also said Renee Zellweger's accent was pretty believable.  I enjoyed the movie enough that I'll probably look up a biography of Beatrix now.  It's a very quiet film, playing out mostly in drawing rooms and gardens, but I like that kind of thing.

Originally posted at MySpace 4/17/07

Fables, vol. 1: Legends in Exile

Centuries after being driven from their individual magical homelands by an unknown Adversary, various characters from folklore and fairy tales (and a few classic children's books for good measure) are living in relative peace and quiet in New York, in a community they call Fabletown.  The Big Bad Wolf (now in human form) is the Sheriff; King Cole is the mayor; Snow White (long since divorced from Prince Charming, who turned out to be all style and no content) is the deputy mayor who actually gets all the work done.  In the first collection of this ongoing comic book series, Bigby Wolf is dismayed when Snow White inserts herself into his investigation of a Fable's disappearance and possible murder, but even he has to admit she has reason to take a special interest; the victim is her sister, Rose Red.

I love this series.  I used to be a minor comic book geek: I collected a couple of superhero titles (in mylar bags with cardboard backing), but I had pretty pedestrian tastes.  It really wasn't until well after I got thoroughly X-Menned out and gave up on superhero comics that graphic novels as a format really took off in this country.  They're doing amazing things in graphic storytelling these days, in every genre from the traditional superhero fantasy to tell-all memoirs.  This series is straight fantasy without the superheros (though Bigby Wolf gets to save the day in dramatic fashion a few times) and it's great stuff: Brilliantly written and excellently drawn.

Originally posted at MySpace 3/30/07

Monday, April 12, 2010

World War Z

The subtitle says it all: "An Oral History of the Zombie War."  Although some of the numerical and factual data was previously published in the UN Postwar Commission Report, this collection of individual experiences told in the words of the individuals concerned adds an important personal dimension to the tale of the worldwide zombie attacks, from the earliest known outbreak in China to the clean-up operations that still continue ten years after the official end of the war.

From vampires to zombies, and holy cow, this is a brilliant book.  The author, Max Brooks, had written a humor book on how to survive a zombie attack, and follows it up with this...novel? collection of stories?  I'm not sure what to call it, and I'm not the only one confused by it; my library catalogued it as non-fiction, in the 818s--the humor section, maybe thrown off by the author's previous classification as a humor writer or maybe just by the fact that he's the son of Mel Brooks.

It is not humorous, though it is occasionally funny.  It is violent, gory, frequently horrifying, and wonderfully written: the oral history structure requires the author to tell his story in short sections, each in a different "voice," and he pulls it off beautifully.  I can't wait to recommend it to everybody I know.

Originally posted at MySpace 3/10/07

Morrigan's Cross et al.

Twelfth-century Irish sorcerer Hoyt fails to destroy either the newly-made vampire that used to be his twin brother Cian or the demon queen Lilith who made Cian into what he now is, but is promptly recruited by the Morrigan, goddess of battles, to find five other individuals to join him and form the core of an army to defeat Lilith in the far future.  In the 21st century, family feeling is something Cian hasn't thought about in a long time, and he isn't sure how Hoyt persuades him to help, but he finds himself persuaded nonetheless.

Only Nora Roberts could make me like a series with vampire sex in it.

I cordially dislike paranormal romance, especially the kind with vampires.  I picked this one up on the recommendation of a friend, and was pleased to find that it's really more fantasy than romance--although the romantic subplots in this book and its two sequels, Dance of the Gods and Valley of Silence, are quite strong, and the sex scenes can get pretty steamy, as you'd expect from the author.  I've read some of her science fiction/detective/romances too, and the same holds true there.

But what I like about Nora Roberts is that her books (the few I've read, anyway) have good plots.  The sex advances the plot instead of the other way round, as in some other vampire books I could mention.

Originally posted at MySpace 3/9/07

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Some Danger Involved

Broke and homeless in 19th-century London, and unable to find honest work because of prospective employers' aversion to his stint in prison for theft and assault, young Thomas Llewelyn drops the battered suitcase containing all his worldly possession in the trash as he stands in line to apply for one more job; one way or another he won't be needing it any more.  Either he'll be hired, or he'll jump off a bridge into the Thames.  He gets the job, as assistant to private enquiry agent Cyrus Barker (who hates the term "detective"), and is soon caught up in his first case when a young Jewish man with a marked resemblance to conventional depictions of Jesus is murdered and left hanging up on a telegraph pole as if crucified.

No surprise that some of the author's previous publications were in Sherlock Holmes journals, though Llewelyn's character as smart-mouthed amanuensis occasionally seems more like Archie Goodwin than Watson.  He's a bright kid, though, and learns his new profession quickly.  There's some anachronistic dialog, and some unlikely elements--would an Englishman, even one who grew up on the streets after the death of his missionary parents in China, be teaching martial arts classes to the police?  I wonder.  But a fun, well-plotted story.

Originally posted at MySpace 1/28/07

The Beautiful Cigar Girl

When John Anderson employed a young woman named Mary Cecilia Rogers in his Tobacco Emporium in 1838, pretty shopgirls were fashionable in Europe, but a novelty in the United States.  Her presence behind the counter drew hordes of customers into the shop, she was described in the papers as the Beautiful Segar Girl, and she became pretty much the first young woman in New York to be famous for being famous.

Three years later she was dead, her battered body pulled from the Hudson River.  The crime has never been solved.

That didn't stop Edgar Allan Poe from thinking he'd solved it.  He transferred the setting of the story to Paris, named his murdered girl Marie Rogêt, and gave it to his armchair detective Dupin to figure out (as Poe thought he had figured it out) purely from newspaper accounts.

Daniel Stashower's book about the murder and its aftermath, The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder, has more to say about Poe than about Mary, if only because the historical record doesn't tell us a lot about Mary.  It's a very clear and interesting portrait of Poe, though, and it doesn't pretend to have solved the mystery of Mary Rogers.

Originally posted at MySpace 1/15/07

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Childe Morgan

I stumbled across Katherine Kurtz's first novel, Deryni Rising, when I was exactly the right age: thirteen, a year younger than one of the main characters in the book.  At the time I thought the fourteen-year-old king was the main character; only later, rereading the book from the perspective of my own increasing age, did I realize it's really about the 29-year-old Duke Alaric Morgan, halfbreed of a detested and distrusted race of sorcerers and one of the flat-out coolest characters I've run across in a fantasy novel.

I tore through the three volumes of the Chronicles of the Deryni, and hunted down the Legends of Saint Camber trilogy as well--a prequel series that I didn't like as much, largely because it had to lead into the vicious persecution of Deryni described as historical fact in the other series, written first but set two hundred years later.  So as a fan, I was personally a little disappointed when I heard that Kurtz had chosen to postpone writing a Childe Morgan trilogy (even though I didn't know any more about it than the name) in favor of three more thoroughly depressing Heirs of Camber novels, in which nearly all the sympathetic characters die wretchedly.

And now she's finally come around to the Childe Morgan series I've been waiting for, leading up to the events described in her very first novel.  And I have to admit I'm disappointed in them.

I suppose they could never have lived up to my hopes for them.  But it just seems like this one in particular, the second in the series, is just a place holder.  An Amazon reviewer described it as a collection of characters in search of a plot; I also got the impression that really not much happened except some traveling back and forth.

Originally posted at MySpace 1/7/07

What Angels Fear

On a foggy morning in London, days before the Crown Prince becomes Regent for the mad old king, Viscount Devlin is minding his own business in much the same way he has since he sold out his commission in the army and came home from the Napoleonic Wars, waiting for his opponent in his fourth duel in six months.  At the same time, a murdered young woman is discovered drenched in blood in a church, and the evidence points to Devlin.  A young constable is mortally wounded during his arrest, and Devlin decides on the spot that his only chance of vindication is to investigate the crime himself, even though that means fleeing from the law.

I've read a lot of Regency romances in my day, so Regency mysteries are right up my alley as well.  This one reminded me of the short-lived Julian Kestrel series by the late Kate Ross, not only for the setting but for the author's unflinching look at the underside of London society--something that most of the romances don't even consider, or gloss over.  Devlin is an intriguing character, and the supporting cast are all well-drawn.

This book is the first by C.S. Harris, a New Orleans author {edit to add: at least under that name; she's also written romances as Candice Proctor, and thrillers as half of C.S. Graham} ; the second novel is called When Gods Die, and I've got my name down for it at the library where I work.

As a side note, not long ago I also read Jane and the Barque of Frailty, the latest in Stephanie Barron's series featuring Jane Austen as the sleuth.  In this one she was in London to oversee the publication of her first novel, whereas previous volumes had been set in various parts of the country; so this one was more like the romances I'd read, with its social round.  It also dealt with less respectable characters, but in a more genteel way, mostly evading the hard necessities of a courtesan's life; a scene where the current star of the demimonde explains in no uncertain terms just what made her run away from her family seems out of place, almost anachronistic.

Originally posted at MySpace 1/1/07

Friday, April 9, 2010


I finally read this book last weekend when I was trapped in an airport and didn't have anything better to read.  I suppose I could have found a news stand and bought a Sudoku magazine or something, but the friend I was traveling with had loved this book and forcibly lent me her copy, and I wanted to get through the thing and give it back to her before we landed at home.  I did this, although I wouldn't have made it if our flight hadn't been delayed for 45 minutes.

I'm not even going to bother describing the plot, except to say that if you've seen Star Wars, picture it with a telepathic fire-breathing dragon and you've got the gist of Eragon.  The only excuse for this tripe is the author's youth: he's retelling the stories he liked, which is exactly the same thing that I did at his age.  The difference being that I didn't have parents who would self-publish my tripe. 

It's an inoffensive book, and acceptably entertaining if you don't expect any original characters or insights.  Not bad as airplane reading, but I won't be rushing out to buy the sequel.  Nor will I be seeing the movie.  No need; I've already seen Star Wars.

Originally posted at MySpace 12/17/06