Tag Archives: Mount TBR

Book reviews and Regency mayhem

Annnd – it’s a twofer! Just because I recently finished reading two books involving catching criminals that are more or less based on the Regency Romance.

I enjoyed both of them, mostly, but I think one approach worked a lot better than the other. So let’s see what we can figure out about what works and what doesn’t in telling a story, while we’re at it.

Review: Maggie Without a Clue

A keeper? Fer sure.

Speaking of Regency romances, somebody has to write them. That’s how Maggie Kelly makes her living. She’s a modern girl in modern New York, but her workdays are spent inventing mysteries for Alexandre Blake, Viscount St. Just, and his sidekick Sterling, to solve in London in the days of the Napoleonic Wars. She’s good at creating lifelike characters, so good that St. Just has decided to take charge of his own destiny. Three books ago, he and Sterling poofed into three-dimensional, solid, independent life in Maggie’s living room.

A period of adjustment followed.

By this story, the situation has kind of stabilized. St. Just has recognized that, in this world, he’s not independently wealthy, and he’s correcting that little problem by organizing street theater and starting a modeling career (since, like any good romantic hero, he’s dramatically handsome). Sterling has accepted twenty-first century technology and fads with great enthusiasm. Maggie has gritted her teeth about sharing her small apartment with both of them. Oh, and St. Just (who has accepted the alias of Alex Blake, Maggie’s English cousin) keeps solving crimes, annoying Maggie’s semi-boyfriend police detective Steve Wendell immensely.

Ah, but at least one part of the situation is about to improve! Poor old Mrs. Goldblum, who lives across the hall from Maggie, has offered her apartment to Alex and Sterling, since she has to hurry off and take care of her sick sister. Or is that an improvement? Never mind that Maggie’s friend Bernice has just found her husband – the one she thought drowned almost seven years ago – dead in her bed, and the police consider her the obvious suspect; what about the thugs who keep roughing up Sterling and searching Mrs. Goldblum’s apartment for something or other?

Alex intends to assert his independence from being only what Maggie wrote him to be. Also, he isn’t about to let Bernie get railroaded, and he’s definitely not going to put up with his new home and his old friend being attacked. He is, after all, the hero.

But what will his new independence do to his budding romance with Maggie?

I enjoyed this one. The mystery was pretty well worked out – including unexpected discoveries about Mrs. Goldblum, who isn’t all that poor and helpless. Maggie’s romantic tug of war between Steve and Alex continues; her friends and enemies are a colorful crowd who keep the story moving; Sterling’s and Alex’s adjustment to life in the real world and the current day is well handled.

Review: The Masque of the Black Tulip
by Lauren Willig

A keeper? Maybe. Then again, maybe not.

Once upon a time, back around the beginning of the twentieth century, the Scarlet Pimpernel helped to protect England from the French under Napoleon. Turns out he had help; a whole team of helpers with various color-coded code names. Lauren Willig is out to tell us all about their adventures undercover.

But so much for what’s happening around about 1800; what’s happening today? Well, there’s this American graduate student who’s researching the Pimpernel’s assistants, and she’s just found some new information.

But meanwhile, Miles Dorrington is hot on the trail of that notorious French spy, the Black Tulip, while keeping a protective (not romantic! absolutely not!) eye on Lady Henrietta Selwick. After all, he promised Hen’s brother, his best friend, that he’d take care of her, even if it means spending the evening at Almack’s. And at Almack’s, Miles stumbles across suspicious behavior that sends him into the slums of London after – maybe – the Tulip.

Oh, by the way, in our time that graduate student is having an awkward time dealing with Colin Selwick, who controls access to the long-lost correspondence that should clarify what the Pimpernel’s assistants were up to.

Meanwhile, Hen corresponds with her friend Amy in code – for both of them are involved in the Pimpernel’s circle too. She also goes into childish snits that might be appropriate for a sixteen-year-old high school student, but seem odd for a twenty year old brought up in a time when, we’re told, polite, formal behavior was important. And she gets caught – by Miles – hiding behind a bush in Hyde Park to spy on him when he takes the seductive Marquise for a drive.

Eager to find out what happens next? Sorry, time to check up on the modern characters again. They may be dull beyond words, but we can’t expect you to keep reading about all these old-timey folks that you can’t identify with, right? (Turns out that I really, really hate stories that try to split your attention between two completely different casts in two different centuries. Ahem.)

Well, eventually we find out, kind of abruptly, who is and who isn’t a spy. And the obvious couple admits they’re in love, after finding themselves compromised and having to elope, but okay, we’ve spent enough time in each of their heads to know they really want to get married anyhow. Oddly, I actually did enjoy the Regency parts of the book – maybe because they were so over-the-top. I hated being dragged back to the present day for no discernible reason, though. And I don’t know that the Regency story would hold up to re-reading; the characters had a tendency to lurch from situation to situation without much thought about what they were doing.

* * *

So – what works? First off, throwing yourself wholeheartedly into your story without worrying whether or not it’s silly. Both books feature overdone characters and situations; that’s a large part of their charm, and the weakest parts of the Black Tulip seemed to be included to assure us that the Regency story had some evidence to back it up. Second, give some thought to who these characters really are, and make them behave as if they have some idea of who they are, too. And if you can squeeze it in, let their personalities develop a bit without changing into somebody unrecognizable. Okay?

Time moves on, even on the Discworld

Review: Night Watch by Terry Pratchett

A keeper? Definitely

Of course, sometimes time on the Discworld moves backwards. Or sideways. Or does a loop-the-loop.

We first met Sam Vimes, back in Guards! Guards!, when he was in charge of the last guttering remnant of the Ankh-Morpork Night Watch. By the end of that story, the usual shreds of order had been restored, and Sam had met his Sybil, otherwise known as Lady Rankin.

It’s been a few years. Watchmen of all shapes and sizes, from Buggy Squires the gnome to Detritus the troll who uses a siege crossbow as a hand weapon, patrol the streets. Lord Vetinari, who could give Machiavelli a few helpful tips, rules by keeping all the city’s factions thisfar from one another’s throats. And Sybil Vimes is the Duchess of Ankh-Morpork; that goes with being married to the very reluctant Duke.

Vimes is still a cop, though – first, last, and all the time – and he’s not about to miss chasing a crazed mass murderer across the rooftops just because he’s got a pile of administrative paperwork. He almost has Carcer the monster in his grip when they both plummet through a skylight into the dangerously magical Library. And time skids.

Once upon a time, Sam Vimes was a wet-behind-the-ears rookie. Once upon a time, Vetinari was a dangerously devious teenager. Once upon a time, Mrs. Rosie Palm, the well-known employer of, er, seamstresses (hem, hem) was young and pretty. Once upon a time, everything was on the brink of going disastrously wrong. Can the grown-up version of Vimes cajole, bully, and inspire history into going the way it ought to turn out, and get back to his Sybil before their son is born? Does the lilac bloom in spring?

Third Sentence Thursday again: How would YOU invent squash?

After the Ice  by Steven Mithen

p. 285: “Not only do their social lives seem to have been based more around sharing than competition, but it seems unlikely that a rival would have been impressed, let alone humbled, by no more than a handful of squash seeds, however large they may have been.”

Archaeologists argue a lot. This quote has to do with two theories of how people about ten thousand years ago in Oaxaca (Mexico) managed to develop corn and domesticate squash and beans.

Theory 1: Over the centuries, people spent more and more time tending wild plants, weeding out sickly ones and planting healthy ones in good locations. They did this to improve their food supply in dry years. Little by little, the plants became more nutritious and appetizing, and more dependent on humans.

Theory 2: Leaders – “big men” – directed the selective breeding of plants so they could use improved varieties to humiliate their rivals, whose crops would be less awe-inspiring. (On the whole, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Mithen prefers Theory 1.)

But what’s this book really about? The subtitle pretty much sums it up: “A Global Human History, 20,000 – 5000 B.C.” Mithen starts with the end of the latest ice age and gives us 52 short chapters, about ten pages each, describing what we know and guess about life in various parts of the world up to the beginning of civilization. To liven up the stories, he invents an invisible time traveler who visits a representative group of people in each chapter and sees how they live.

This is a book to read in chunks, a few chapters at a time. Try to read it all at once and you’ll feel like you’re being rolled head over heels in an avalanche of information. Take it in smaller bites, and it’s a fascinating story of how climate shifts and human inventiveness changed the world.

Mystery and Suspense Challenge – Where’s the money?

Review: Fearless Fourteen by Janet Evanovich

A keeper? Sure

Ten years ago (book time), four guys robbed a bank in Trenton, New Jersey. Only one of them was arrested, and the money never turned up. Now Dom Rizzi is out of jail, mad at the world, and determined to get his share of the loot. He thinks it’s in his Aunt Rose’s house, or at least that a clue to finding the money is there. But Aunt Rose is dead, and who inherited her house? His rotten cousin Joe Morelli the cop, that’s who.

Worse yet, his nephew Zook (well, technically, his name’s Mario Rizzi, but what kind of name is that for a serious online gamer?) is living with Morelli because Zook’s mother Loretta is in jail and Morelli’s sometime girlfriend Stephanie Plum the bounty hunter promised Loretta that she’d make sure Zook had someplace to stay.

Are you confused yet? Just relax and enjoy the ride. Summarizing the plot of a Stephanie Plum story is worse than a waste of time; it’s a short route to head-spinning befuddlement. What we have here is fast-moving farce with cops and robbers and miscellaneous other offenders who didn’t get out of jail free. Instead they had to post bond, with a little help from Stephanie’s boss who advanced the money. And when they don’t show up for their court date, it’s Steph’s job to locate them and bring them back to the police. She’s not very good at it. But somehow, she gets by.

A word of warning for those who object to raunchy language: these are not the books for you. You won’t find really explicit scenes, but there are incidents like the elderly man Stephanie has to track down who doesn’t like to wear pants. So she ends up spreading newspaper on the back seat of her car and taking him to the cop shop bottomless. And Steph can’t make up her mind between Morelli (totally hot, probably husband-and-father material, but as bullheaded as she is) and Ranger (even hotter, dangerous, mysterious, absolutely not husband material, and inexplicably fond of her).

There’s a large cast of characters who have accumulated over the course of the series – each book has a numbered title – and many of the regulars show up in Fearless Fourteen. (Including Stephanie’s friend Lula the retired ho’, who has decided to get engaged to her boyfriend Tank, whether he knows it or not.) This one actually has a more coherent story than some of the Plum books, since there’s an ongoing theme of trying to find the other three bank robbers and the money, and rescue Zook’s mother Loretta (who gets kidnapped by the robbers), and keep Zook from spraypainting Morelli’s entire neighborhood…. But there are more than enough detours, one-shot self-contained scenes, plots that start out separate and get entangled in the robbery story, and general chaos to keep you from focusing on anything too hard.

What’s human? What’s not?

Review: Lilith’s Brood by Octavia E. Butler

A keeper? I have to think about that some more.

For the first two parts, this was one of those books I wanted to read fast to find out what happens, and also wanted to read slow so I could think about the ideas. The last part – well, let’s set the stage before we talk about the last part. (Note: Lilith’s Brood is really a trilogy – Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago – republished as a single book.)

If it weren’t for the Oankali, human beings would be extinct a few centuries before the beginning of this story.

Who are the Oankali? That’s what Lilith Iyapo wants to know as the saga begins. Somebody has shut her up in a very strange doorless room; somebody she never sees or hears. Her last memories are of hiking in the Andes, trying to forget her dead husband and son, when the final nuclear war broke out. She should be dead; she seems to be alive.

Eventually, an Oankali joins Lilith in her room. She’s horrified. He’s hideous, with no eyes and little tentacles all over his head. But she adjusts. She’s more or less adopted by his family and turned over to his ooloi child Nikanj to learn about the Oankali and what has happened to people. (The ooloi are the third sex among the Oankali. As the story goes on, we learn just how important they are, in a self-effacing way.) It seems that the humans who could be rescued have been healed (the Oankali are master genetic manipulators) and, mostly, kept sedated until the earth had been coaxed into supporting life again.

Much, much more happens. (Lilith’s Brood is almost 750 pages long.) The Oankali give Lilith the job of training groups of humans to recolonize earth (with Oankali partners, whether the humans like it or not). Fastforward – oh, maybe a century – and many humans, including Lilith, are back on earth. A large fraction of the humans – the Resisters – refuse to have anything to do with the Oankali, and have been made sterile. And the Resisters’ despair at being the last of their kind leads to all sorts of problems, including kidnapping young hybrids. Hybrids?

The fertile humans are the ones who have joined Oankali families to produce human-Oankali hybrid children, each with five parents – two humans and three Oankali. We follow one of Lilith’s part-Oankali sons as he grows up, develops ties to some Resisters, and fights to talk the Oankali into terraforming Mars for the Resisters. His dream is to let Mars become an independent human world where they will be allowed pure-human children. (Why not give the Resisters earth? Because, in time, the Oankali and their humans will use most of the planet as raw material for several starships and go seeking new life and new civilizations to assimilate. There won’t be enough left of earth to make a decent moon.)

So far, we have an exciting story with some meaty science fiction ideas – what does it mean to be human? Who is human? Is homo sapiens genetically doomed? (The Oankali certainly think so.) How far can you go in exploring and accepting another culture (or species) without betraying your own people?

Then comes the third section. Another century or thereabouts has passed, and another of Lilith’s children is growing up (the other parents are Tino, a human man, the male Oankali Dichaan, the female Oankali Ahajas, and the ooloi Nikanj – the same Nikanj Lilith has known since it was a child). The hybrids don’t know what sex they will be until they’re twenty or thirty years old – but everyone is surprised when this child, Jodahs, realizes it’s becoming an ooloi.

As Jodahs matures and tells its story, we realize just how powerful the ooloi really are. In human-Oankali families, it’s the ooloi who selects what genes will go into the next embryo, from which parents. They manipulate genes to change the bodies of full-grown adults – always for good, we’re told. They inject biochemical tranquilizers to soothe anyone who objects to what they are doing.

In effect, both the humans and the male and female Oankali have been domesticated, like dogs or cows, by their ooloi. And the ooloi can’t stop. Their own biochemical urges force them to tinker with everybody around them. I suppose I’ve read too much history; I can’t swallow this level of control as Officially Good, no matter what the manipulators believe they’re doing. With this last section in which we hear Jodahs’ story, Lilith’s Brood changed from thought-provoking science fiction to quiet horror.

Mystery and Suspense Challenge: An honest man in an evil world

Review: Graveyard Dust by Barbara Hambly

A keeper? Yes.

New Orleans, 1834. A fine city, if you’re rich, white, and ruthless. Otherwise, not so much.

Benjamin January is almost broke (being a musician doesn’t pay very well, especially in summer when all the rich people leave the city), very black, and compassionate. He has only a few things going for him: Freedom, as long as he can prove it (he carries several carefully hidden sets of papers documenting his status as a free man with him wherever he goes). A good education that qualified him as both a classical musician and a doctor, thanks to the man who bought January’s mother to be his mistress and freed her and her children. Several good friends (though how much can January trust the white ones, his colleague the consumptive violinist Hannibal Sefton or the “Kaintuck” (Kentuckian) policeman Shaw?). His family, especially his married sister Olympe and her husband.

Now Olympe has been arrested and charged with selling poison to kill young Isaak Jumon. There’s no body, but Isaak’s brother Antoine swears that he was taken on a long midnight carriage ride to a mysterious house where he was left with his dying brother for several hours, then taken home just as strangely. (But Antoine takes opium; how much of his story was a drugged dream?) Meanwhile, Isaak’s mother Genevieve – who, like January’s mother, was a “placee”, an ex-slave mistress of a rich white man – is trying to get control of the money Isaak inherited from his father by claiming that Isaak is her slave!

But January lives in a world full of greedy, unscrupulous people – Genevieve Jumon is far from the worst. There are rivalries between the old French upper class of the city and the newly arrived Americans. There are many humiliating laws and customs that “people of color”, slave and free, ignore at their peril. There’s a city government determined to insist that, no matter how many people die in the prison, no yellow fever and certainly no cholera has reached New Orleans. There are prostitutes of all ages. There are hired assassins – one is after January. There’s an uncounted number of voodoo practioners (including Olympe), headed by the notorious Marie Laveau, who winds up as one of January’s allies in finding out what happened to Isaak Jumon.

And there’s Isaak’s grandmother Cordelia, once a beauty of the French court before the Revolution, a truly evil woman noted for unusual cruelty to her slaves and her sons alike. But Cordelia is very old now; does she have enough strength left to be the killer in this case? Maybe not. Even so, if you read this story prepare to be genuinely shocked at the crimes of one of the characters; they go far beyond the usual greed and revenge motives of mystery stories.

And Benjamin January? An honest man doing his best to keep his head above water in a harsh world, an intelligent man trying to understand the people around him, a strong, brave, and determined man struggling to protect the people he loves, a man who can coax information out of people at almost every level of his society and keep his own thoughts to himself. If he can’t save Olympe from the hangman and the yellow fever that’s killing one prisoner after another, nobody can.

Mixing up years and characters…

Review: The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

A keeper? I’m afraid not

Not a bad book, exactly – but it should be either longer or shorter. The initial situations are intriguing: in 1913 London, a very little girl is settled in a hiding place on the deck of a passenger liner – but the woman who told her to hide there never comes back for her. And in 1976 Brisbane, Cassandra’s mother drives the two of them to her mother’s house and leaves Cassandra there. For keeps. So we start with what looks like two parallel stories of abandoned little girls. Very promising.

Unfortunately, it almost seems as if Kate Morton really wanted to tell a story about the turn of the twentieth century but didn’t trust her readers to care unless she included characters from the present day, or close to it. She gives us a lot of detail about young (and adult) Eliza’s experiences between 1900 and 1913; she makes us mourn when Eliza’s twin brother dies and fear what might happen to Eliza in the slums of London – and fear the worse things that might happen to her among her wealthy relatives in Cornwall. We enjoy Eliza’s talents for storytelling and evasiveness, and we worry about her sickly rich cousin Rose, and we hate her aunt Adeline. I’d have been perfectly happy to read three or four hundred pages about all these late nineteenth century and early twentieth century people.

On the other hand, Morton could have put more detail into the stories of Cassandra and her grandmother Nell (who probably didn’t start life as Nell; but after a head injury on the ship bound from London to Australia back in 1913, she can’t remember what she used to be called). True, this would have made the book at least six or seven hundred pages long – but it’s already 549 pages. What’s a few hundred more, if it makes the story better?

A sentence or two here and there suggests that Nell spent her married life in the United States, but we never see her there or find out why she lived there. As for Cassandra, there are (I think) just two brief hints that she has some great personal loss – aside from Nell’s recent death – by the time we meet her in 2005, before we find out on page 200 exactly what happened. Now, if Morton told us that Cassandra refused to think about her loss, this delay would work. But on p. 200 we’re told her tragedy (the deaths of her husband and toddler; this isn’t a spoiler, because it’s not really important to the rest of the story) was “never far from her mind”, and I don’t believe it. Not when I’ve spent so much time in her mind by that point in the story without being able to figure out what was wrong other than Nell’s death. Not when she rarely thinks about them again for the next 350 pages.

Basically, Morton uses Nell and Cassandra to sub for the reader and investigate the story of Eliza. If we had spent time hearing their own stories in emotionally involving detail and had a chance to find parallels or contrasts to Eliza’s life, this could have been a wonderful book. If we stayed with Eliza and her friends and enemies, it would be a good book. As it is, it’s a book that keeps yanking us away from each piece of the story as soon as we plunge into it. 😦