Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Waiting on Wednesday (25)

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. So here's a thing I'm looking forward to: Longbourn, by Jo Baker (October 8, 2013, from Knopf).

The servants at Longbourn estate--only glancingly mentioned in Jane Austen's classic--take center stage in Jo Baker's lively, cunning new novel. Here are the Bennets as we have never known them: seen through the eyes of those scrubbing the floors, cooking the meals, emptying the chamber pots. Our heroine is Sarah, an orphaned housemaid beginning to chafe against the boundaries of her class. When the militia marches into town, a new footman arrives under mysterious circumstances, and Sarah finds herself the object of the attentions of an ambitious young former slave working at neighboring Netherfield Hall, the carefully choreographed world downstairs at Longbourn threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, up-ended.

There's a whole cottage industry of fanfic pastiche sequels and retellings of Jane Austen. Even authors as distinguished as P.D. James can't resist. This one sounds like it has the potential to be more thought-provoking than most, so I'll definitely give it a shot.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Waiting on Wednesday (24)

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. So here's a thing I'm looking forward to: Bastion, by Mercedes Lackey (October 1, 2013, from DAW), fifth in the Collegium Chronicles series.

Mags returns to the Collegium, but there are mixed feelings--his included--about him actually remaining there. No one doubts that he is and should be a Herald, but he is afraid that his mere presence is going to incite more danger right in the heart of Valdemar. The heads of the Collegia are afraid that coming back to his known haunt is going to give him less protection than if he went into hiding. Everyone decides that going elsewhere is the solution for now. So since he is going elsewhere--why not return to the place he was found in the first place and look for clues? And those who are closest to him, and might provide secondary targets, are going along. With Herald Jadrek, Herald Kylan (the Weaponsmaster's chosen successor), and his friends Bear, Lena, and Amily, they head for the Bastion, the hidden spot in the hills that had once been the headquarters of a powerful band of raiders that had held him and his parents prisoner. But what they find is not what anyone expected.

I wonder when Mercedes Lackey decided she didn't have to limit herself to trilogies? In a way I'm a little bit sorry she came to that conclusion, because this series has been rambling on without much resolution for at least the last two books, and I like stories with an ending, thanks large.

But I like some of the characters here enough, and I enjoy Lackey's style enough, to stick it out a bit longer in the hopes of reaching a satisfactory ending, so I will certainly read this, almost certainly soon after it comes out.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Riddle of the Labyrinth

The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, by Margalit Fox.

In 1900, archaeologist Arthur Evans began digging at Knossos in Crete, and within days had uncovered a cache of clay tablets inscribed with what he was sure were the written records of the Palace of Minos. The writing system resembled no other known to scholars; Evans drew a distinction between an earlier version of the script, which he designated Linear Script Class A, and a more elaborate later version, Linear Script Class B. Neither was deciphered in his lifetime.

Linear A remains a mystery to this day; there just isn't enough available text for analysis. But Linear B was finally cracked in 1952 by Michael Ventris, who was not an archaeologist, a linguist, a classicist, or indeed an academic of any kind; he was a professional architect, and a passionate amateur of the problem of the script.

A third figure in the decipherment who isn't as well known today was Alice Kober, an American professor of classics who also worked on the script in her spare time, drawing up meticulous card files (written on homemade index cards filed in cigarette cartons) about each of the syllabic characters on its own and in relation to other characters. She might have been the one to decipher the script instead of Ventris, had she not died young in 1950, at the age of 43; Ventris leaned heavily on her published work, especially her preliminary grid of a few of the characters that she had identified as sharing the same consonants and vowels.

Of course, depending on your level of linguistic and/or historical geekery, you may not have heard of any of these people. Evans was the only one whose name sounded vaguely familiar to me before I read this book; I knew there was a Linear A script from Crete which had not been deciphered, and a Linear B script which had, but I couldn't have told you who was responsible. This book was fascinating to me all the same, detailing the immense difficulty of figuring out an unknown script in an unknown language and the immense amount of work involved in the pure logical analysis of the characters, especially by Kober. Great stuff; it makes me want to dig up the syllabary I invented for a class assignment in morphology twenty-odd years ago and revise the spelling rules; or possibly figure out how to write English in Linear B.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Human Division

The Colonial Union, now at odds with its own home planet of Earth as well as with the hostile alien Conclave, finds that its long reliance on military force in all encounters with other intelligent species is no longer sustainable, and it must attempt a novel tactic in dealing with the remaining unaffiliated alien races: diplomacy. Ambassador Ode Abumwe and her team, including Colonial Defense Forces tech specialist Lieutenant Harry Wilson, are called on at the last minute to replace a diplomatic ship that has disappeared: Abumwe to take over the mission and Wilson to find out just what happened to that earlier ship.

And that's just the first episode!

The Human Division was originally published as a 13-episode serial, one chapter a week for 99¢ apiece from the middle of January to the beginning of April. The collected hardcover edition came out in May, and I picked it up after that. (Hardly surprising to those who know me; I trade-wait comics as well, and watch TV by the season on DVD.) So I can't speak to how well it worked as a serial. I suspect that if I'd read it that way, there would have been a number of episodes where I was a little confused about where I'd seen certain characters before; as it was, I had to flip back to an earlier chapter for a reminder a couple of times.

Overall, though, I thought it hung together really well as a unified whole, and didn't feel too episodic even though that's literally what it had been. I've seen some reviews of it that expressed some disappointment in what the reviewers felt was a vague non-ending with a distinct lack of closure, but I didn't feel that way about it at all; I thought that enough early questions were answered in the process of raising the later ones that I was quite pleased with this volume as it stood.

Of course, a lot of threads were left hanging for a sequel, so I'm equally pleased that Scalzi's publisher renewed the project for a second season. And yes, I will be trade-waiting that one too.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Waiting on Wednesday (23)

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. So here's a thing I'm looking forward to: Battle Magic, by Tamora Pierce (September 24, 2013, from Scholastic Press).

On their way to the first Circle temple in Gyongxi, mages Briar, Rosethorn, and Evvy pay a visit to the emperor's summer palace. Although treated like royalty when they first arrive, the mages soon discover that the emperor plans to invade Gyongxi, posing a fatal threat to the home temple of the Living Circle religion. Accompanied by one of the emperor's prize captives, the three mages rush to Gyongxi to warn its citizens of the impending attack. With the imperials hot on their trail, Briar, Rosethorn, and Evvy must quickly help the country prepare for battle. But even with the help of new allies, will their combined forces be enough to fight the imperial army and win the war?

I am a diehard fan of Tamora Pierce. I remember seeing her first series, the Song of the Lioness, in the teen section of my local library when I was in high school--but I didn't read it then, because for some bizarre reason they never seemed to have book one. It's book two I remember seeing on the shelf.

And I was the kind of library patron whose theoretical existence drives me crazy now that I work in that same library: I never ever asked the librarians for anything, not even whether they might possibly be able to get the first book of this series I was interested in reading. (For the longest time, though I was also a diehard fan of Katherine Kurtz, I couldn't finish her Camber of Culdi trilogy, because the library owned book one and book three but not book two. Did I ask the librarians about that one? Indeed, I did not.)

But I digress. I finally read the Song of the Lioness in my early twenties, I think, at college or maybe in library school, and found it the kind of series I was quite likely to finish and immediately begin again. A lot of her books are like that for me; I sink right in, no matter how many times I've read them before. The Circle books aren't as immersive for me as the various Tortall series, but I'm still very much looking forward to this one.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!

by Agatha Christie. I had to go to some trouble to find a picture of the cover with the original title on it, since it is now published under the much less entertaining title of 4:50 from Paddington, even though the actual train in the novel leaves Paddington Station at 4:54.  This discrepancy is never explained.

Elspeth McGillicuddy, not given to fancies or hallucinations, is distressed when the proper authorities don't seem to believe that she saw what she is quite sure she saw through the window of a train that passed hers on her way to visit her good friend Jane Marple: a man with his back to the window and to her, strangling a woman who expired before Mrs. McGillicuddy's horrified eyes. Fortunately, Miss Marple believes her friend, and Miss Marple is more than capable of sorting out the whole affair, with a little help from some friends to do the legwork.

Because obviously, if you're friends with Miss Marple, you tell her immediately when you've witnessed a murder, right?

I've never been a big fan of Agatha Christie generally, though I tend to like the work of some of her contemporaries quite a bit (Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, and Dorothy Sayers all inevitably come to mind). I seem to remember being a little creeped out by the character of Miss Marple; she's like the spider of St. Mary Mead, with threads running everywhere--nothing moves in her web but she knows about it, and she understands you better than you do yourself. You don't see Miss Marple figure out the answer; she just knows it, a good bit earlier than she deigns to explain it to anybody.

I would not have picked up this book if my book club hadn't chosen it.  I admit I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, but I think that may be because Miss Marple's not actually in it much, since the story tends to follow her operatives. I've now revised my opinion of Christie to the effect that I'm not entirely opposed to reading another Miss Marple story (still can't stand Poirot, however, the smug bastard) but I don't suppose I'll make a point of looking for them.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Waiting on Wednesday (22)

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. So here's a thing I'm looking forward to: W is for Wasted, by Sue Grafton (out September 10, 2013, from Putnam).

Two dead bodies changed the course of my life that fall. One of them I knew and the other I'd never laid eyes on until I saw him in the morgue.

The first was a local PI of suspect reputation. He'd been gunned down near the beach at Santa Teresa. It looked like a robbery gone bad. The other was on the beach six weeks later. He'd been sleeping rough. Probably homeless. No identification. A slip of paper with Millhone's name and number was in his pants pocket. The coroner asked her to come to the morgue to see if she could ID him.

Two seemingly unrelated deaths, one a murder, the other apparently of natural causes.

But as Kinsey digs deeper into the mystery of the John Doe, some very strange linkages begin to emerge. And before long at least one aspect is solved as Kinsey literally finds the key to his identity. “And just like that," she says, “the lid to Pandora's box flew open. It would take me another day before I understood how many imps had been freed, but for the moment, I was inordinately pleased with myself."

In this multilayered tale, the surfaces seem clear, but the underpinnings are full of betrayals, misunderstandings, and outright murderous fraud. And Kinsey, through no fault of her own, is thoroughly compromised.

I have to admit, I've gotten a little behind on this series; I'm stuck somewhere around T or U, I think. But I remain fascinated by the way they've become historical novels; in Santa Teresa, it is always 1985, or something like that. 

It'll be interesting to see what Sue Grafton does when she gets to the end of the alphabet. I doubt it's possible for Kinsey to have any kind of traditionally happy ending, but I wouldn't mind seeing her ride into the sunset.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Waiting on Wednesday (21)

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating. So here's a thing I'm looking forward to: The Bones of Paris, by Laurie R. King (September 10, 2013, from Bantam).

Paris, France: September 1929. For Harris Stuyvesant, the assignment is a private investigator's dream - he's getting paid to troll the cafés and bars of Montparnasse, looking for a pretty young woman. The American agent has a healthy appreciation for la vie de bohème, despite having worked for years at the U.S. Bureau of Investigation. The missing person in question is Philippa Crosby, a twenty-two year old from Boston who has been living in Paris, modeling and acting. Her family became alarmed when she stopped all communications, and Stuyvesant agreed to track her down. He wholly expects to find her in the arms of some up-and-coming artist, perhaps experimenting with the decadent lifestyle that is suddenly available on every rue and boulevard.

As Stuyvesant follows Philippa's trail through the expatriate community of artists and writers, he finds that she is known to many of its famous - and infamous - inhabitants, from Shakespeare and Company's Sylvia Beach to Ernest Hemingway to the Surrealist photographer Man Ray. But when the evidence leads Stuyvesant to the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in Montmartre, his investigation takes a sharp, disturbing turn. At the Grand-Guignol, murder, insanity, and sexual perversion are all staged to shocking, brutal effect: depravity as art, savage human nature on stage.

Soon it becomes clear that one missing girl is a drop in the bucket. Here, amid the glittering lights of the cabarets, hides a monster whose artistic coup de grâce is to be rendered in blood. And Stuyvesant will have to descend into the darkest depths of perversion to find a killer . . . sifting through The Bones of Paris.

I'm a fan of Laurie R. King's Russell and Holmes series, and to a lesser extent, a fan of her Kate Martinelli series. This one is a standalone, but I trust the writer enough to give it a shot.