Monday, June 28, 2010

The Cardinal's Blades by Pierre Pevel

I'm so glad to see that this book will be released in the U.S. this October. I ordered my hardback copy from England at great expense, but it was worth every penny.

The book is set in seventeenth century Paris, which is a hotbed of intrigue and deception and dashing musketeers. Necessity has caused Cardinal Richelieu to recall the group of elite spies known as the Cardinal's Blades, disbanded five years ago after a disastrous turn of events that left one of their number dead and another exposed as a traitor. Captain La Fargue is reluctant to accept the reinstatement; the memories of the betrayal by one of his closest friends still hurts him, and he doesn't entirely trust the cardinal, either.

After reading the first 50 pages, I knew I was in the hands of a master. I also had no earthly idea what was going on in the book, but that was okay, because Pevel obviously knew what he was doing. There are so many schemes and intrigues, so many spies and hired thugs and turncoats, so many plots and subplots and counterplots, that a lesser author would have gotten bogged down halfway through and resorted to a lame bunch of coincidences to sort everything out. Pevel never gets bogged down, and the story progresses inexorably to a brilliant climax. I was left guessing and surprised right down to the very last sentence.

There are a lot of characters, all with French names, which I found difficult to remember. I almost made a list to keep track--I hope the North American release has a cast of characters in the front; it would really help. But the characters are so strongly drawn and memorable that I rarely had trouble figuring out who was meant, even if I couldn't place the name right away.

This is a swashbuckling adventure, full of action and violence. It's not easy to describe a swordfight without getting mired in detail that slows the pace, but Pevel is a master of writing action. The fights never went on too long, but they were always exciting.

I read one review a few months ago that mentioned the sexism in the book. I didn't see it at all. One of the blades is a woman, Agnes, who is one of the most important characters in the book's climax; all the other female characters are similarly strong and fully realized.

Since so many characters aren't what they seem, it's hard to know who's the bad guy and who's the good guy. I loved that. I found myself mentally booing a character one paragraph and then pulling for him or her the next. In a less perfectly executed book, I'd be annoyed at the uncertainty. Here it works so well I can't imagine it being any other way.

A big shout-out to Pevel's translator, Tom Clegg, who kept the flavor of the French language while doing a great job making everything clear. That can't be an easy job, especially not with a book like this one.

I hope there's a sequel.

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Monday, June 21, 2010

The Buccaneer's Apprentice by V. Briceland

The Buccaneer's Apprentice is the second book in a series. I suspect that some of the characters our hero meets toward the end of the book are ones from the first volume (which I haven't read), and therefore I probably missed some layers of meaning in their actions, but the book stands on its own.

Nic Dattore has been an indentured servant since birth. He thinks he'll never work his debt off, since every time he changes masters the amount goes up--and he changes masters often: he's also cursed, a curse that doesn't affect him but which kills his masters. After seventeen years of misery, though, Nic's finally working for a kind man, an actor who runs his own theater troupe. But during a sea voyage, pirates attack the ship; Nic, sleeping alone on the deck, wakes amid the chaos and has to fight for his life.

That is a good beginning. I liked the fight with the pirates, which is followed by an interesting section telling us about Nic's past. I loved Nic's reaction--once he manages to find his way to a deserted island--to the realization that he's now his own master, king of the island.

Then, of course, it turns out he's not on a deserted island after all. In fact, the island is sort of castaway central. Nic meets a mildly irritating man who was press-ganged into becoming a pirate but who says he's retired, an old man with very little personality, and the most annoying girl in the known universe. I could. not. stand. that. girl.

Once the girl showed up, my interest in the book took a nosedive. I still liked Nic, who is a pleasant young man struggling with his newfound freedom and the accompanying responsibilities; I even got to where the irritating ex-pirate didn't irritate me so much. But I wished someone would just push the girl overboard and sail off without her.

The plot wasn't bad. Nic and his newfound companions decide to pass themselves off as pirates to get aboard the ship that had attacked Nic's, whereupon they sail to a disreputable port to resupply. There Nic learns that the old man and annoying girl are not what they seem (well, duh), and the plot thickens considerably. If the coincidences seem just a bit too much, and the pieces fall into place just a little too easily, I can live with it.

What I had trouble with, though, was the serious lack of suspense. Action scenes are often preceded with information that tells us Nic and his friends come out of things okay--for instance, as Nic and co. approach the pirate ship in a rowboat in the dead of night, planning to fight their way aboard if they have to, we're told that later, audiences in the play made of the story really liked this part. The author likes to slow action down with long conversations, too. You just snuck onto a pirate ship, bluffed the captain and crew into accepting you, and discovered that your actor friends are being held captive in the hold? That's a great time to have a twenty-page conversation in which every single character busts your new secret identity, which presumably you need to actually keep secret. Tension is dissipated even more by tons of description and some redundant phrasing--we really don't need to be told that Nic's upset when it's clear from his actions that he's upset.

But except for the needlessly slow pace and that one truly annoying character, the book's fun. I found Nic's journey--physical and mental--interesting and possibly the most unique take on a coming-of-age story I've ever read. The writing, pacing, lack of sex, and only mild violence all tell me the book is intended for younger teens, if you're looking for a good birthday present for a young person.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire

I didn't like Rosemary and Rue. I disliked it pretty much from the beginning, so I probably should have just put it down. The only reason I kept reading was because I wanted to find out who the murderer was, and then McGuire doesn't play fair with the clues.

I didn't like October "Toby" Daye, the main character, and I didn't like any other character in the book either, and I'm thoroughly sick of the Cruel World of Faerie. Mostly, though, I didn't like Toby. We're told over and over that she's a knight of faerie and has done all these heroic things in the past despite being a changeling instead of a pureblood, but I don't believe it. She spends the whole book essentially droning "nobody likes me, everybody hates me, I'm going to the garden to eat worms" when every single character in the book is bending over backwards to help her. She needs the help, too, because her greatest talent seems to be getting shot by bad guys. She sure doesn't do much else.

Deep breath. Okay, seriously, there's no need for me to take this personally--it's just that I'm seeing an increasing trend in urban fantasy of so-called strong female characters who don't actually do anything but get rescued. You know, there is plenty of ground between the "man with boobs" type of female character and doormats who don't even shoot the bad guy at the very end of the book when the bad guy has just confessed to every crime going and has shown him/herself to be evil and insane. Seriously, Toby, just pull the damn trigger. What is your problem?

To be fair, if you can get past the fact the main character spends most of the book feeling sorry for herself and/or recuperating from the latest ambush that someone had to rescue her from, the story's not as terrible as I'm making it out to be. The writing is solid (I use this term a lot; I mean it's not bad writing at all but it's not brilliant prose) and the worldbuilding interesting. While I hated every single character as though they'd done me personal wrongs, at least I could tell them apart (although there were so many characters that I kept losing track of who was whom).

Not much happens in the book, though. Toby is forced by a dying woman's curse to investigate her murder, but the investigation doesn't involve much. Toby tastes the dead woman's blood to see what happened in her last minutes (that at least was cool, even if we find out at the very end of the book that the memories were 'somehow' tampered with), and then Toby sneaks into the dead woman's office and finds a Maguffin. Then it's just Toby getting shot and rescued until she discovers The Awful Truth from a character who acts as a deux ex machina, and then she fails to shoot the bad guy. That's pretty much it. I know this is a fantasy and not a real murder mystery, but if you open with a dead body, you really do need to lay down some clues for your supposedly former-PI and fairy knight to investigate. Toby doesn't even figure out to talk to the deux ex machina character on her own. Someone else tells her to, and tells her why, and sends her magically to the character's front door.

I actually don't like writing negative reviews, especially for books that aren't badly written. Rosemary and Rue caught me at a bad time--I've read a lot of books recently with the same flaws and this one was just the last straw. I think I'm going to be a little more picky with the next several books I read. If I don't like it, I'll just stop reading.

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Monday, June 14, 2010

Swords Against Death by Fritz Leiber

Swords Against Death is the second Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser book (I reviewed the first, Swords and Deviltry, last year). I was going to wait until I'd read the third book before writing another review, but I don't know when I'll get around to the next book. By the time I do, I'll probably have forgotten the details of this one.

Anyway, I liked Swords Against Death even better than the first book. I was surprised that the tone was so much lighter--much more what I'd expected when I first started reading the series. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser do a lot of adventuring, sometimes for treasure, sometimes against their wills (or at least their better judgment). I liked that their personalities became more developed this time around, too. Fafhrd is a little bit happy-go-lucky, in a lugubrious way, while the Mouser is cautious and a little superstitious.

Some of the stories were more accessible than others, language-wise. The stories with a more arch, stilted tone interested me less than the slightly more modern ones. On the other hand, some stories (particularly "The Price of Pain-Ease" and "The Bazaar of the Bizarre") tipped a little too far toward modern and sometimes feel early-1970s dated. I also noticed a casual sexist and racist tone in some stories that I don't remember from the first book; it's not bad enough to put me off the books, but I was surprised and disappointed.

I'm still going to read the third one, of course.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Moonshine by Alaya Johnson

Everything about Moonshine hits my personal likes--the 1920s and an exploration of otherness and social stratification, in particular--so I'm not sure why I didn't like the book as a whole. It wasn't terrible, but it felt unfocused, with so many themes and subthemes that the book wallowed along instead of moving at the brisk pace that's really needed.

Zephyr Hollis is the suffragette main character, and I think she's a big part of why I didn't like the book very much. I found her weak and bland. She teaches night school to immigrants in New York City, which seems to take her about an hour or two a week; certainly it gives her lots of free time to join every cause going (except the prohibitionists, and good thing too since she manages to get drunk every time she's given access to booze). Oh, and she also sings in a nightclub, because it's the 1920s so you have to include jazz and gin joints. (Not that I'm complaining, mind.)

Zephyr has Issues. Her daddy is a famous demon-hunter in Montana and trained her to follow in his footsteps, but instead she's helping vampires and fighting for Other rights. She doesn't eat meat (or much else) for reasons that change from the start of the book to the last--first she seems to be atoning for past sins, but then later she just says she's seen inside slaughterhouses. And she's so ready to help others (and Others) that she neglects herself in a way that seems frankly over the top, like giving away all her money in response to a sob story and then having no way to pay the rent. Dumbass. I wanted to smack Zephyr constantly.

Her love interest, Amir, is just as vapid. I never found him very attractive, and certainly never felt much of a spark between him and Zephyr, even when they were breathlessly tumbling into bed--although they always manage to get interrupted before anything happens anyway.

The plot is pretty simple. Amir asks Zephyr for help finding out information about a notorious mob boss named Rinaldo, a vampire. Since Zephyr has just given away all her money (not for the last time) and Amir is offering to pay her for her help, she agrees. Then she proceeds to careen from coincidence to coincidence while picking up clues. The book would be half as long if only characters would stop being coy with information for the sake of prolonging the suspense.

I don't want to come down too hard on the book, because it has a lot going for it too. It's solidly written. While the plot relies heavily on coincidence, it held my interest. I picked up on more clues than Zephyr did and had most of the big reveal sussed out ahead of time, but I didn't figure it all out. And the historical details felt natural and never jarred, which is a real trick when an author has done as much research as Johnson must have--it's always a temptation to keep infodumping, but she's a light touch with the facts. The slang felt right, too.

But...the vampires. The vampires are way too powerful, particularly since it only takes the merest nip for a vampire to turn humans into more vampires. There shouldn't be any humans left. And although Zephyr kept going on about how vampires are just regular people with jobs and families, the action shows a very different story. Even vampires who were meant to be sympathetic acted like monsters. I frankly thought Zephyr's dad had the right idea about what vampires actually are; he shows up partway through the book to call Amir a wog (repeatedly) and sneer at Zephyr, but he by God gets out there and kicks vampire butt when it counts. I would much rather read about him than his pasty wimp of a daughter.

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Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block

(First, I must thank Kate, who left on top of her printer a pretty paperback book, with a green-and-pink cover, a book so thin that I took it out to the garden and read it in one hour.)

Weetzie Bat, by Francesca Lia Block, is a brief, luminous fairy tale about love and happiness in Hollywood.

Weetzie Bat is a beach girl, "...skinny...with a bleach blonde flat-top....sugar-frosted eye shadow...." She first has friends, then lovers, then a family, but the author touches on biography only for continuity; instead, she chooses, by bombarding the reader with an array of magical images, to draw the reader into the shimmering Technicolor world that Weetzie inhabits: "...tomahawks and plastic palm tree wallets...a fountain that turned tropical soda-pop on a music box with a little dancing monkey on top...."

The cottage in which Weetzie dwells, with children and puppies and friends, was given to her by a genie who emerged from a gold bottle, and the three wishes seem inevitable and natural in the dream that is Weetzie's life: "There were roses and lemon trees in the garden, and two bedrooms inside the house--one painted rose, the other aqua. The house was filled with plaster Jesus statues, glass butterfly ashtrays, paintings of clowns, and many kinds of coasters."

Block's characters are simple and loving. They worry about the evils in the world, which sometimes drives them to distraction and almost drives them away from the Eden they have made with each other, but somehow love heals everything well enough for a while, even if not enough for "happily ever after."

This amazing book, which feels like a poem, makes the reader's own surroundings, at least for the moment, surreal and beautiful, gifts from a genie's bottle.

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Saturday, June 5, 2010

A Cup of Tea by Amy Ephron

A Cup of Tea by Amy Ephron, Ballantine Books, 2005

May This Reviewer suggest peppermint tea? It's supposed to aid in digestion, and this book will make you sick. It made me sick, but I'm rather delicate about appallingly bad grammar and astonishingly inept editing.

I plodded my way through this awful Ballantine book, which is part of HarperCollins (I will never forgive them! I respected them!) for ONE REASON: I was FORCED to read A Cup of Tea for a book club that meets next week.

The best thing about this book was its length: one hundred and forty eight pages was all I could have endured.

Here's a random example of both her writing and of the high-school-level of editing. This is from page 30 and is exactly reproduced:

"Eleanor walked over and bought herself a pretzel. She took a bite, savoring the taste of the salt on the warm dough. Down the street, a young boy hawking newspapers screamed out in an adolescent voice, 'U.S. breaks diplomatic relations with Germany! Uncle Sam supports'-- his voice went up on this--'European allies.' And Eleanor was left to wonder whether he, too, would be sent to war next year. And whether three squares and the regimen wouldn't be good for him or, at least, only as hard as this."

Oh, and on another page, Eleanor (who was very hungry, being poor) was offered a tea cake and the author had her taking "a ravenous bite." How can--am I being picky?--how can one bite be "ravenous?" Maybe two or three bites--let me think:

If I were "ravenous," and were offered a teacake, I suspect I would eat it all at once--just chuck it in and swallow.

But how can a single bite--

I digress.

The plot, which is the only competent component of this "novel," is lifted from a short story that was written, presumably much more cleverly, by Katherine Mansfield back in the twenties.

And here's the plot: a rich woman has just bought on a whim a lovely box and a letter opener. She walks out of the antique shop and sees a lovely, thin woman wearing a gray sweater. She asks the woman, who looks cold, if she's all right, and the woman says, "Could I have money for a cup of tea?" The rich woman impulsively and unwisely takes the poor woman home in her chauffeured car, and the poor woman is immediately attracted to the rich woman's fiance. Oh, dear.

For the reader’s amusement, I'll offer one more gagworthy sample of her prose, which clanks in my head so much that I'm surprised I can write a straight sentence. Here's the rich woman talking about war with her father:

"'Will you think I'm terrible,' asked Rosemary petulantly, 'if I tell you that I'm sick of Archduke Ferdinand?'

"Her father chided her softly. 'Are you going to tell me that you're sick of the Archduchess Sophia, too?' he asked. He was teasing but trying to elicit a more human response, for although history would forget this, the Archduchess was killed alongside her husband and whatever Rosemary's mood, she had always been a defender of women.

"'No,' she answered soberly, 'but their legacy lives after them. I don't want to hear about Bismarck or how they feel in France.'"

Enough--sorry. (And is it so obvious that the author did some Wiki research before penning this prose and didn't want to waste a single juicy tidbit?)

I just did my own Wiki research and found out that Amy Ephron is one of the famous Ephron screenwriters—she worked on A Little Princess, Born on the Fourth of July, and Out of Africa.

I'm stunned. I don't know what to say. That's heavy hitting--Out of Africa. A Little Princess.

No wonder she got in with HarperCollins.

Just go make yourself some tea. Put about six Oreos on a little plate, and eat them ravenously, bite by bite.

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