Monday, November 3, 2014

Review: The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer

The MasqueradersThe Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'd never read any Georgette Heyer, but I kept running across her name in various contexts. I finally combed through her books at my local library to find one that was unlikely to make me throw it across the room. Turns out I needn't have worried. Heyer wrote her books before modern romance tropes were established. No alpha males here; just fun characters getting up to mischief without ever thinking of anything below the waist.

The Masqueraders tells of a pair of siblings, Prudence and Robin, who are posing as the opposite sex. They're hiding Robin, who backed the wrong cause in a recent conflict. Meanwhile, their father claims to be the rightful heir to a title, while they have to pretend they've never met him before in their lives. Neither believes for a second his claim is true; he's played previous roles too well. But then Robin falls for the petite Letitia, and Prudence for the formidable Lord Anthony Fanshawe. While their roles do let them get closer to the objects of their affections, it makes confessing their feelings a bit more complicated.

I might have appreciated this story more if I'd known more about the political rumblings filling out the background of this story. Heyer seems to assume we all know what the Jacobite Rising is, and why it would be terrible to be found out as a Jacobite after the dust settles. It never takes the time to explain, which is just as well. There's plenty of plot to fill these pages.

Unfortunately, some of the pages are filled with characters explaining things to one another the reader already knows. More than once, a scene we just witnessed is related to a character who wasn't there. While it may be revealing in what the speaker leaves out or how it's presented, it makes the story tedious in places.

The strength of the story lies in its characters. Prudence and Robin and their father are all rogues to their core, and it's impossible not to root for them. Prudence lives up to her name, though her loyalty to her brother holds her to her role. As little respect as the siblings have for their father, it's impossible not to like him. There's something utterly charming in his boldness.

The love interests, too, make for interesting reading. Letitia has a thirst for adventure one can see Robin is more than qualified to fulfill, and Fanshawe shows hidden depths in every page he inhabits. They're both well-matched to our heroes.

The dialogue took me some time to adjust to, but, once I did, I found it light and bantering and witty. Heyer preserves many of the Regency speech patterns and expressions, but it turns out they're not that much different from modern speech. It gives her more room to let her characters show off some wordplay.

This was a refreshing change of pace in my search for a romance novel I wouldn't hate. It turns out that all I had to do was go to a time pre-dating modern romance. All the tropes I hate can't be there if the author didn't know she was supposed to be writing them. This also works as a suggestion for romance readers who skip over the sex scenes; the romance is all above the belt.

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Review: Coraline by Neil Gaiman

CoralineCoraline by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'd read this book years ago. Then it was picked as the October read for my book club, and I leapt at the chance for a reread. This is a delightfully creepy read.

Coraline has just moved to an old house, divided up into apartments, where she feels ignored by her parents and generally bored out of her skull. While exploring, she discovers a door that only opens onto a brick wall. But that night, when she visits it after everyone's asleep, she discovers that it's a portal to a world with a doting mother, a fun father, and a brightly-colored bedroom with toys that can move by themselves. She soon learns the important lesson about things that seem too good to be true. She has to call on all her wits, bravery, and resources to rescue her parents from the malevolent spirit who's created Coraline's ideal world.

Even before Coraline learns of the price of staying in the other mother's realm, there are plenty of hints that not all is as it seems. The trained mice her upstairs neighbor is building a circus for send along a message to beware, and the dotty old ladies downstairs read her tea leaves and find a dire warning. Nonetheless, it's easy to see why Coraline is able to ignore these signs. The other mother really does her homework in researching how to make Coraline's new life perfect.

One of the ghost children the other mother has captured before calls the other mother "the Beldam," which brings to mind Keats' "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." The story isn't exactly a parallel of the poem, but it certainly seems to be the same creature. One doesn't need a familiarity with the poem, though, to follow Coraline's story, or why she needs to stop the Beldam, or why the story's so sinister and creepy. There are plenty of frightening elements, and the creature shows her colors before long.

My favorite aspect of this story is Coraline's continued resourcefulness. She outsmarts the Beldam not with an easy solution, but by thinking on her feet. She does luck into some of the elements she needs to solve the puzzle, but the resolution is all her. And the final nail in the coffin, which the movie version was quick to do away with, requires a great force of will and bravery to go through with. Coraline is an admirable heroine.

While Coraline seems to be about 8 years old in the book (and perhaps 12 or 13 in the movie), I would recommend any parents of children that young screen this before sharing it with your children. It has some frightening imagery that may stay with a small child. I would've been all right, reading this at 7 or 8, but I don't represent all children, ever. The book is aimed for a younger audience, but it can easily be enjoyed by their parents. Or, in my case, aunt.

I was happy to have the excuse to reread this book. It's delightfully written, and deliciously creepy. Coraline is a fun companion, and her adventure ends all too soon. Probably not in her opinion, but one can't help but miss her once the book is closed.

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Sunday, November 2, 2014

Review: Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones

Fire and HemlockFire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the tenth book in my 2014 TBR Pile Challenge. I always enjoy Diana Wynne Jones' writing, but, for some reason, I've been putting off reading more of her books. Can't imagine why.

Fire and Hemlock is a modern retelling of the Tam Lin tale, with some Thomas the Rhymer tossed in. Polly takes the role of Janet, who rescues Tam Lin with her love. Which, considering Polly is at least 15 years younger than Tom Lynn, and starts off a child, has some discomfiting implications. Polly starts off the story with no memory of Tom, but suddenly recovers them just in time to confront the powerful family who has Tom under its thrall.

The story is confusing in places. Part of it is because Polly doesn't understand, so, as the perspective character, she can't fill us in. But there are several aspects still left unexplained at the end of the story. The main points are covered, but why Laurel needs Tom, and later Tom's nephew, the charming Leslie, is never fully explained. Only those with a familiarity with the original tale will understand Laurel and Morton Leroy's ties to Faerie.

That does lead to far fewer info dumps, but it also makes things confusing in places. And some of the plot points seemed unnecessary. Like, if Tom's ability created the hardware store and the people populating it, why are they related to him? That whole plot point seemed needlessly complex.

I did think Nina's role was an interesting one, but that she was underused. There aren't a lot of overweight girls depicted as strong and desirable. That Polly wishes she could be more like her in the beginning is refreshing, though their later falling-outs were disappointing. I would've liked for Polly to have someone she could rely on, so she didn't have to bellybutton-gaze to reach all of her conclusions. I'm not sure why the story required that she was all alone in the world, except for Tom.

Despite my nitpicks, I did enjoy this story. Unlike many updates to classic tales, this didn't feel like it was shoehorning characters' actions to fit the plot. I understood Polly's motivations, and Tom's choices are understandable in retrospect. I liked it better than Pamela Dean's version. Though, that may have as much to do with the lack of enthusiastic recommendation as it does to the quality of Diana Wynne Jones's writing.

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Review: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

The Legend of Sleepy HollowThe Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Who could resist an audio of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, read by the actor who plays Ichabod Crane on the TV series? I certainly couldn't, especially because Audible was giving it away for free.

I thought I'd already read this story, but it turns out I've seen so many adaptations, I thought I had. There's no substitute for the real thing, it turns out.

Ichabod Crane is a poor schoolmaster in Sleepy Hollow, obsessed with ghost stories. He relies on the good people of the village to satisfy his enormous appetite for good food, and thinks he's hit the jackpot when he catches the eye of Katrina van Tassel, eligible daughter of the wealthiest family in the area. Then one night, he goes to a party at her house, and Brom Bones, his romantic rival, is there. Katrina rebuffs Ichabod, and then that night, he encounters the Headless Horseman who's rumored to haunt the woods near where he's buried. Ichabod is never seen in Sleepy Hollow again.

Interestingly, it's not a ghost story. There's a strong implication it was Brom Bones who took the guise of the Horseman to scare Ichabod off. There's also an implication that Katrina only pretended to be interested in him to provoke his rival to compete for her. And Ichabod's interest in Katrina, pretty as she is, is fueled by greed. All of which certainly turns all of the pop culture tropes about the story on its head.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a spooky story, but, more, it's a commentary on a time and place that don't exist anymore, and a study in human nature. Had Ichabod any reason to think he stood a chance with Katrina, had his belief in ghosts been any less, had his rival been less determined to scare Ichabod off, this story might have ended differently. Interestingly, the most straightforward interpretation of the story puts the blame on Katrina's shoulders for the cruelty of Brom Bones's prank, and scaring Ichabod half to death.

If you've never read this story, you could do a lot worse than to pick it up for yourself. Especially if you have an Audible account, and can listen to a fictional Ichabod telling it for free.

As I said, I listened to the audio, narrated by Tom Mison. He does a lovely job with the reading. I detected no problems with pronunciation, and there are none of the volume issues I run into with a lot of audio books. If you like the Sleepy Hollow TV series, there's a really good chance you'll enjoy this production.

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Review: Blow Me Down by Katie MacAlister

Blow Me DownBlow Me Down by Katie MacAlister
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

By the description, this had all the potential to be like Vicki Lewis Thompson's Nerds series. Unfortunately, it fell victim to the need to shove an alpha hero mold onto its potential beta, thereby watering down a lot of character development that could've been so much more interesting.

Amy Stewart is a buttoned-up financial analyst when her daughter talks her into trying out a virtual reality pirate game. There, Amy meets Black Corbin, who's really PC Monroe, the game's creator. Not that she realizes it, at first. She takes him for just another computer character, and she's unimpressed. She beats him at a swordfighting, and he's smitten. Then they both realize they're locked in to their virtual reality headsets, thanks to a virus written in by an irate ex-employee. They need to work together to figure out which character the saboteur is hiding in, and stop his plans, if only they can quit boinking long enough to get to it.

The plot is fairly simple, though it has Amy running all over Corbin's creation to stall her progress. It takes no time for Amy and Corbin to wind up in bed together, and an embarrassingly short time for him to start spouting the L word. Even if their perception of time wasn't warped by the game, it would still be premature.

And Corbin's characterization has such potential. Instead, the game gives him the confidence to act the part of the alpha male jerk, who decides he wants Amy and can do whatever he wants to get her. And of course it feels so good she's swooning in no time. Interesting leaps in VR technology, there.

The concept of this book is interesting, but it is, at its core, romance. And, because I don't buy the romance between these two characters, especially not the way it unfolds, I wasn't on board with the rest of it. There are only two characters populating the world Corbin and Amy inhabit; the rest are constructs of the program. And yet, even the "real" people feel just as flat as the NPCs Amy interacts with. Corbin's best friend is only there to push Corbin and Amy together that much faster, and the bad guy is pure cardboard.

This story had potential, and maybe a more thoughtful author not determined to shoehorn her male love interest into an alpha male role and to hurry along the romance might've been up to the task. Overall, though, this was a disappointing read.

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Saturday, November 1, 2014

Review: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

The Martian ChroniclesThe Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ah, if only someone told me what to expect from this book. The way people described it, it sounded like any other space opera about human settlers on a fictional Mars. Had someone told me it was more Twilight Zone than Star Wars, I would've snapped it up a lot sooner.

The Martian Chronicles follows a series of short stories about the human colonization of Mars. But this book has none of the innocent optimism of most stories about space written in the 1950's. It's creepy and menacing, and ends on anything but a hopeful note. This posits a world where Martians kill the first human arrivals, first out of jealousy, then because they think we're crazy. As in War of the Worlds, though, our germs do them in, leaving us free to colonize Mars and destroy everything from those who came before. But then nuclear war happens on Earth, and almost everyone vacates to return to their families or help with the war effort. They would've been better off staying on Mars.

A lot of the book is a commentary on colonialism, erasure, and appropriation, while parts get into religion and the nature of God, and other stories illustrate the inherent destructive nature of humanity. Most of the stories end badly for the characters, but it's rarely because of outside forces. More often than not, people bring their misfortunes down on themselves.

My favorite story of the collection is "Usher II," about a man who re-creates Edgar Allen Poe's works in a ghoulish replica of The House of Usher, then uses it to punish those responsible for taking fantasy works out of circulation. It has shades of Fahrenheit 451, with a dash of schadenfreude. That one left me grinning wickedly.

It turns out that my mental comparison of these stories to The Twilight Zone is no accident. Ray Bradbury wrote several episodes, which I'd never realized. It makes sense, in light of how well he writes creepy, stay-in-your-head horror, but I'd never put it together before. This book definitely leans on his creepier side. If you liked "The Veldt" or Something Wicked This Way Comes, those will give you a much better idea of what to expect than most other SF of the era.

I wish I knew what I was missing out on, when I kept skipping over this book. I thoroughly enjoyed this. Hopefully my review will save you from making the same mistake I did.

I listened to this book on audio, narrated by Scott Brick. He has a very manly-man sort of delivery, making the stories sound sort of pulpish. Still, his delivery is strong, and he narrates clearly. There are some places where I had to adjust the volume, either because he had shouting characters shout or whispering characters talk in a very low voice, but, for the most part, it was good narration, and didn't detract any from the story.

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Review: Shattered Pillars (Eternal Sky #2) by Elizabeth Bear

Shattered Pillars (Eternal Sky, #2)Shattered Pillars by Elizabeth Bear
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book in a trilogy that's turned out to be a real treat for me. I didn't know what the expect from the start, and it continues to be full of fun surprises. I have no idea what might happen next, but I'm going to enjoy finding out.

The Eternal Sky trilogy's mythology takes a departure from traditionally European fantasy worlds, and borrows from Russian, Central Asian, and Middle Eastern stories. The reason seemingly contradictory mythologies can exist is because each land's supremacy is shown by whose sky shines overhead. This isn't a matter of time zones; it's a matter of the number of moons in a sky changing by stepping over a border.

In this, Temur, whose people are nomadic horse breeders and excellent warriors, accepts his role as the future Khagan of his people. The wizard (and once-Princess) Samarkar is there to help, as is Hrahima, a sentient tiger, and the silent monk Hsiung. But there are political forces massed against Temur. His cousin also wants to claim the throne, and is being both manipulated and helped by al-Sephehr, a powerful sorcerer with ancient magic under his control. Meanwhile, Edene, the woman he set out to rescue, amasses a kind of undead army to support him.

The characters have grown from their initial beginnings. Samarkar's magic has grown in strength, while Temur's acceptance of the responsibility he must bear is central to the story. We learn a lot more about their companions, and why they're accompanying them, and we even get some back story on the terrible assassin on Temur's trail.

Every page of this story fills out this lush, multifaceted world all the more. There's a lot going on here. The politics are just as complicated as in any historical period, the magic is well-thought-out and nicely balanced, and the people are as fleshed out and thoughtful as anyone you might meet in your hometown. There are no flat, "because I'm the bad guy" villains here, nor any easy answers that would solve everything.

I'm looking forward to what the next book holds. I have no idea what to expect. I think I know where it's headed, but, knowing this series, I'll be surprised. And I'll like it that way.

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Review: Kitty Takes a Vacation (Kitty Norville #3) by Carrie Vaughn

Kitty Takes a Holiday (Kitty Norville, #3)Kitty Takes a Holiday by Carrie Vaughn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the third book in the Kitty Norville series. As much as I appreciate that the books don't fall into a convenient formula, it makes for some uneven quality of the books.

In this installation, Kitty is taking a break while she works on a memoir about her life and how she became a werewolf. Only, she's stuck, and doesn't know where to start. Then barbed-wire crosses start showing up on her property, as well as animal sacrifices on her front porch. And, to top it all off, her lawyer, Ben, is brought to her by her werewolf hunter buddy, Cormac, because he's been bitten.

So far, every book surprises us by where Kitty starts out, and where she ends up. For a series, there are a lot of changes from one book to the next. Kitty remains unsure of herself, but a reader can track her progress. Her reason for rising to the occasion makes perfect sense: with Ben to look out for, she has something more important to worry about.

Unfortunately, Ben drags the story down a lot. He spends a good chunk of the plot moping, and planning to have Cormac kill him so he won't have to live as a werewolf. While it does give Kitty a chance to reflect on the drawbacks of lycanthropy, the back-and-forth, stomping about, and pouting don't make for interesting reading.

There's a mystery within this book, but it's fairly obvious who's behind it. The town where Kitty's hiding out has so few people, and she interacts with even fewer than that. The mystery definitely didn't do anything to heighten the tension.

The pacing is off in this book. The main conflicts are presented to Kitty one at a time, which is awfully polite of them. The biggest of the problems takes until the last third of the book to show up, and it's so geographically removed that I wondered why the author bothered including it in this book. It made the plot take on a stuttering, start-and-stop momentum that made it hard to want to keep reading.

I do plan to pick up the fourth book in this series, but I'm not in any hurry to get to it. Hopefully the pacing is better. I don't think I could make it through another book about Kitty killing time until she's ready to join the world of the living.

I listened to this book on audio, narrated by Marguerite Gavin. She has a lovely, smoky sort of voice, the kind of voice I can imagine Kitty, herself, might have. Though, her pronunciation of "lycanthropy" gets more annoying every time I hear it.

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