This was a Member Giveaway on LibraryThing, in ebook form – thank you! A longer version of this review is at: http://agoldoffish.wordpress.com/2011/08/17/jockeys-and-jewels-bev-petterson/
What it says on the tin for this book that it's a mystery/romance set in the racing world. And it hits all of those elements pretty equally: Kurt is looking for the reason the dead cop, Connor, was looking at the track's stables, why he was murdered, as well as who did it. Naturally enough, he finds himself irresistibly attracted to Julie, and vice versa. And the book is placed in a detailed racing setting. Unfortunately, I think it fell a little bit short on all three components.
I find the title rather unfortunate. Alliteration for alliteration's sake – spoiler or not – is not a positive, and the fact that it is a big fat spoiler for the mystery aspect of the story is a shame.
I can't say I cared about anyone in the story; some of the minor characters were enjoyable, but the main focus was on people I couldn't drum up much interest in. Kurt's lack of finesse as a lover (in the old-fashioned use of "lover" as well as that more commonly used now) is off-putting, and Julie – a driven, ambitious apprentice jockey who wants to ride more than anything else – just made me angry as she proceeded to get comprehensively drunk the night before her first big race. The stupidity blew my mind. "Kurt stepped from Lazer’s stall, his expression inscrutable, and the butterflies in her stomach morphed into giant moths. Was he disgusted with her drinking last night?" If he wasn't, I was.
It was a quick read, and mostly enjoyable; it could have been better.
I really hesitate before giving five stars to a book. The ones that are unquestionably five stars create a benchmark that isn't easy to hit - Tolkien, and Austen, and Chesterton and Sayers and the complete works of Guy Gavriel Kay. I especially didn't expect to ever give five stars to a book I can't hold in my hands, which I downloaded by sheer chance from Smashwords.com. But one nice thing about Smashwords is that you can read a substantial sample before committing to buy a book, and I fell in love very quickly with Dead in Time by Anna Reith. Happily, the download was available as a pdf - not ideal, but accessible.
So, late one night Ellis is working on her thesis, when an album starts playing on her stereo which shouldn't be playing on her stereo. It's an old favorite of her mother's by a band called Brother Rush, and not one she remembered putting in queue.
“Not bad for a man with a dodgy perm and lurex trousers,” I murmured, taking off my glasses to rub eyes bees-winged enough to be buzzing.
“Well, that’s charming,” he said. “Thank you very much.”
When she looks up she is more than startled to find her window seat occupied by the lead singer for Brother Rush, Damon Brent. Which would be, in itself, startling enough if he hadn't been dead for thirty years.
And with that her life is changed.
It was on August 28, 1976 (I wonder if Anna Reith has the same sort of reason to hate that date as I do), as we see in flashback segments and hear from Damon himself, that he held one last huge party at his country house, awash with booze and drugs. The latter were blamed for the … accident that took his life; he was found naked in a pool of blood, tangled in the shower curtain; obviously, he slipped, bashed his head on the sink, tried to get up, and hit his head again, and lay bleeding to death alone as the party ebbed in the house below. But, he tells Ellis, he knows that's not what happened.
It's a straightforward idea – a ghost prodding the living to resolve the manner of his death. But this – this is unique, and beautiful, and so well written. The characters are wonderfully drawn – I don't remember enjoying characterizations so much, not in a long time. The writing is filled with sharp observations and humor, a solid knowledge of music and a kind of alarming depth of knowledge of glam rock. I loved Damon Brent (even though I kept picturing Russell Brand for some reason, despite the fact that Day is blond); his band-mates and wife, and Ellis and her family and friends, were three-dimensional. It's so frustrating to read this, so real that I should be able to go to iTunes and download Brother Rush. I want to.
In the meantime, what I can do is refer this book to everyone I can think of, and read everything Anna Reith has written. And I will.
Welcome to a world where flowers are grown for the lower classes and made for the wealthy, by magic, along with birds and sunlight and blades of grass; where a soldier is, literally, married to his blade; where Fate is king and almost all-powerful. The first thing I thought on firing up the Kindle was that the writing was sheerly gorgeous, thickly embroidered with metaphor and simile like nothing else I've read … and I wondered whether it would pall after a while.
It didn't. There were one or two similes that landed with a thud, but for the most part it succeeded at a grace as light and playful and attractive as the cats that populate the story.
… the first room was a workshop with a counter and display-shelves, and what it sold was obviously dust…
… something painted by a madman on parchment of human ears….
Wyrdrake, driven by a deep need he can barely put words to, goes to King Fate to request a bride. I'm not sure if his freedom to do so is because of his position, or because the land is more egalitarian than most. It is known abroad that not only can Fate and his people create such things as birds and butterflies, he can also create a bride upon demand – and in fact has done, although that lady upon facing her impending marriage determined that she wanted Fate, not her intended husband. The bride can be made – the love cannot. And Fate's apprentice, Marr, wants more than he has. And thereby hangs a tale.
The city where this story is set took some getting used to. "Sondolattis, city of marvels, whose people lived with heaven in plain sight. With mundane magic, and commonplace wonders. They lived so long that they mastered their daily work, and then went beyond mastery and became miracle-workers." It's not only that there is magic there – it is magic. It is built largely of dragon bone, and rests on the back of another enormous dragon, sleeping in the lulled peace of having been married to King Fate long ago. This is the key to keeping the dragon docile and still: she has been given husband after husband through the long years … and that is definitely one of the things that took getting used to. There are, in Sondolattis, two sorts of marriage: the familiar kind between a man and a woman, and this kind, the second marriage, in which a person is bound in devotion and loyalty to … something. It could be a soldier married to his sword, or a guard married to the gate which is his post, or a scholar in a clock tower married to Time.
Somewhere along the way, though, the strangeness fell away, and the city made its way under my skin, and it all seemed perfectly right and natural. Let the Dragon Wake is a novel (or novella)-length fairy tale. It makes no attempt to explain logic away its improbabilities and impossibilities, but lets them glimmer and shine in their setting of dragon bone. It is beautiful and unexpected and harsh and sweet. It's a gem.
This is a very unusual book. I won it through LibraryThing’s Member Giveaway in exchange for a review; otherwise I’m not sure I would have finished it. Yet in the end I’m glad I did finish it.
The title is just what it appears to be, a play on “whore” and “horticulture”. (I’m sure there’s a word for that; conflation?) For the first part: The lives of four young women of antebellum America are highlighted, and through them the expectations and limitations of women in the time period. Four young women begin as innocents, with their own ideas of what life will be like; four young women wind up with their innocence shattered, their expectations crumpled. Life acts on these girls – rarely do any of them have the chance to take action to change their own circumstances, and when they do make the attempt it tends not to work out well for them. This is not a book of erotica, much less a romance novel – there are some scenes which border on the graphic but nothing to compare to most of what’s out there. It is more than anything a sociological study of the circumstances leading up to different forms of prostitution – by its legal definition as well as circumstantial – through four (five, in a way) separate but intersecting stories. The young bride solidly and terribly under her husband’s thumb and the young woman attempting to build a business and maintain an illicit love affair are not much better off than the actual prostitutes – “owned”, in a way, by their madams. This is one of those books which scours away all the little wishful 21st century fantasies of a simpler life in a simpler time; this is one of those books which leaves all the Happily-Ever-After endings looking kind of silly and impossible
For the second part of the title: Throughout the book is woven the language of flowers, and language relating to flowers and plants. This was obviously done very deliberately, but the intention was not so obtrusive as to be annoying.
In some ways it is not an easy read. It’s set in the present tense, which can be off-putting. And the subject matter is difficult. I don’t think it will ruin anyone’s reading experience (and might serve as fair warning) to say that the closest thing to a happy ending in this book is not very happy at all. No one is entirely good in these stories, and no one is entirely happy, even at their happiest – misery runs thick and heavy for these women. Innocence is largely a matter of ignorance, and the ignorance is massive, though short-lived. It’s fascinating to see how these girls’ lives spiral downward, and disheartening. There is a spirit and a sense of humor to the points of view which both makes it easier and makes it harder to watch. This is a book after which I didn’t much like anyone, but particularly men, and after which I probably should have reached for Winnie-the-Pooh or something equally antidotal.
I won this book through LibraryThing’s Member Giveaway, and I’ve been far too long in getting to it. I blame a Kindle malfunction which wiped out my collections, so that I lost track of it. That’s my story, anyway.
Don’t let the terrible cover put you off. It looks like a bad PNR. It’s not. Not bad, not PNR (well, there is what could be called a paranormal element, and there is romance, but – no, it’s not a PNR). This is a beautiful, beautiful fairy tale, set in Cymru-that-is – perhaps Wales of old, perhaps not – and playing off any number of old stories without ever locking into “retelling” of any one. It is sensual without being explicit, bardic without resorting to archaisms, funny when it isn’t busy breaking your heart. There’s a sting in the tale, though.
It begins with the birth of a girl with a startling head of blood-red hair and equally startling green eyes. Her mother does not survive the difficult birth, her father rejects what must because of that coloring be a changeling child, and the midwife, rather sadly, takes her away to leave her by the ocean. Through a sequence of events that tends to confirm that the baby has faery blood, she survives, and lands in the care of a wisewoman, Tesn, who adopts her, names her Áine, and raises her as a daughter and apprentice.
Meanwhile, the twin sons of Brychan, Chief of Llynwg – Idrys and Emyr – never exactly homebodies, get themselves into trouble one evening while hunting deer. They’ve roved too far from home, and are startled to find themselves following a beautiful woman with blood-red hair and – no, not green, but silver eyes. She is no changeling, this one, and no halfling, but full-blooded faery, with nothing human in her, and she takes a fancy to the handsome princelings. This, as many tales suggest, is rarely a good thing. And so it proves for the boys. She takes them both to her bed, and there they remain, night after night. During the day they are left to their own devices, and despite the pleasant oblivion they find with Seren, during the day they are painfully aware that they are captives, and that their beloved parents must be missing them, and that though just days seem to be passing faery is notorious for running on a different clock: what seems like a week to them might be months outside. The two manage to escape, but she finds them quickly, and punishes their ingratitude with a curse: each twin will spend half his life as a large, black hound, Emyr from sunset to sunrise and Idrys from sunrise to sunset.
a better cover
By the time Áine comes into their lives, they have seven years in this state – both living as Emyr, with the story going that Idrys was killed on that hunt that left the twins missing for months, the hound being a gift from the hermit who nursed the survivor back to health. Áine slowly falls in love with, she believes, Emyr, who is warm and a little sad during the day, and much more prone to dark moods at night. Because of the special abilities that set her apart, along with some keen observation, she figures out the basics of the situation (the only person to ever do so), and – in love with both aspects of Emyr and so both twins – she looks forward to settling in the village for a time of happiness for all of them. This is almost immediately thwarted when she is presented with the possibility of breaking the curse. And any pain the protagonists experienced before that moment is dwarfed by what follows. It was already clear from her treatment of the twins that Seren is cruel; the four tasks she sets for Áine, to retrieve the components for items needed to break the curse, are evil.
The writing is simply lovely. It manages to blend a contemporary feeling (“Morning,” Áine said … “Sleep well, I hope?”…) with a genuine feel of Welsh bardry. The voice is warm and sympathetic, and Áine is a beautifully built character. She was born different, and raised different, and the latter both emphasizes and ameliorates the former; the fear that meets her coloration is balanced by the respect all feel for the healer and wise woman. She is alone in the world but for Tesn, but has learned – she thinks – to accept that. When she meets Emyr – so subtly different at night from how he is during the day – the aloneness begins to look more like loneliness, and things begin to change.
The world of Cymru -that-is is lightly sketched in, with enough color and shape to set off the brilliant characters and not so much as to overwhelm the reader. The humans and fey (and in-between) who populate the land are the focal point, and they’re vivid and alive. Even characters who are only seen briefly bring their stories with them – Blodeuedd (who has her own painful tale) is sad and spirited; Bran the Raven King is vivid and kind and wicked, and unfathomable. Seren herself is more of a blank; there is very little more to her than malice and lust – but really, that works. It fits in with an uncomplicated view of Faery as completely lacking in humanity, as completely Other and alien. (Which also helps, a little, with the terrible decision forced onto Áine; I’m still processing that one.)
I’m extremely torn about this book. My feelings fluctuate wildly between that was the only way it could go and I can’t believe that happened. It manages to both feel right and to just demoralize me. This is not a children’s story, or one of the old stories cleaned up and Disnified into prettiness. What is done, what is required before the end, is horrible. What is gained by it is … suited to Celtic myth, actually. Happily Ever After? I can’t answer that, and not just because of spoilers. I loved this book right up until the moment things change irrevocably, and finished it in a sort of numb state; now, writing the long spoiler-filled thoughts below, I’m just a little angry about it. Oddly, I’m not so much angry at Annie Bellet, the author, as I am at Áine. There had to be another way.
Okay, actually I am a little put out with Annie Bellet. There are arcs that begin in this book which are beautifully completed – and others which hang in midair, dangling unfinished. There are threads which could have been woven from the beginning throughout which might have changed the ending. There are guns, in the Chekhov metaphor, which go unfired. (And one small thing: Áine takes a knife from the giant fairy smith, and says “I’ll see it returned to you.” Was it?)
Would I recommend this (if I recommended books)? I honestly don’t know. With Goodreads firmly embedded in my habits now I had five golden stars firmly in mind through most of the read. I can’t stress enough how much I enjoyed the writing. But. Big, huge, nasty but.
I definitely want to read more of Annie Bellet’s writing. But it’s like the fey – beautiful, but I don’t know if I can trust it.
Spoilers on the other side of the black hound.
For her final task, Áine has to collect the tears of a faery woman in a little bowl and bring them back. She finds the faery – but the woman has been turned into a willow tree, and it appears that the only way to make her cry would be to kill the woman’s three children. The fairy smith Trahaearn had told Áine that there is another way to break a curse: kill the one who did the curing. Unfortunately, in this case, that would require Áine to take Seren’s place in the little house by the lake (the drychpwll), never able to leave. (Seren “cannot stray far … wields great power from there, but her reach in either Cymru is small. If you kill her you would be bound to the drychpwll in her place, immortal but unable to leave her domain.”) And so she has to decide whether to go back and kill Seren, or kill the three innocent children of a woman who never hurt her, or just give up.
I hated the choice Áine had to make; I was shocked at the choice she did make. I kept expecting some third, clever alternative … Saving Bran on the way back from the first task was an act of kindness typical of Áine, something done with no thought of reward, but it was rewarded. Her aid to the giant was done partly to accomplish her goal, but also – mainly, I think – because the sight of the man’s pain was more than she could bear and she had to help him; if this had been rewarded with more than the requested clasps – if, perhaps, Trahaearn had given her a harp that made music of surpassing beauty, and Áine was able to use it to wring tears from the tree-woman, or … anything, really – it would have been fitting. Or if the fairy steed, the March Cann, had had something to do with solving this problem, it would have felt right. Or if there had been some other incidental act of kindness that came back around to her. Or if she had wept at the foot of the willow tree and told the tale of her dilemma – how, especially having danced with the three fairy children, she could never consider killing them, even if it meant that she had to go back and kill Seren and take her place, and this had wrung tears from the fairy woman … I don’t know. I waited for an alternative right up until the moment Áine cut the first child’s throat, and then just kept reading in something of a state of shock.
I think this is the problem, in fact – I was disappointed and taken aback that a touch of reality intruded here, and there was no clever solution. The appearance of a perfectly made fairy tale was so strong up to this point, so well done, and this was so jarring, that while I never considered closing the book – I needed to know the ending – the heart was sucked out of it for me. So much is made throughout the book of a wisewoman’s duties and single oath: To do no harm – and yet here, to break a curse which when you come right down to it wasn’t hurting anyone and which the twins had lived with for years, she is faced with killing either Seren or the children, and decides to kill three children – and three children who had just danced with her and brought her great joy, and nestled up next to her to sleep, trustingly. She killed them in their sleep. I think any alternative would have been better than this. And, too, how could this lead to a happy ending? It can’t. And it doesn’t. Which is also dismaying.
What happens is this: Áine completes the tasks and brings all the components back to Seren, and Seren creates two necklaces. These she gives to Áine with the instruction that they must be put over the heads of the twins at sunset of Midsummer Day as they are about to change. The obstacles to this are that Áine is transformed into an old woman, toothless and mute (and the twins, her loves, will have to recognize her before sunset for her to get her own shape back), and sent back into the real world more than three years after she left to pursue her dream, and on Midsummer Day. She makes it to the village with help, Idrys (in hound form) recognizes her scent, Emyr finally twigs to her identity at the last second, she can’t get to them because one of their men is blocking the crazy old lady and so throws the necklaces; in classic Seven Swans fashion one settles neatly over Emyr’s head, but Idrys’s doesn’t quite connect, and it hits the ground and vanishes. So he will continue to be a hound in the daylight… Oh, and by the way, Áine arrives just as Emyr is about to get married. And neither she nor Idrys can prevent it. And while she’s a smart girl, Emyr’s wife, she won’t have his cursed brother and his faery girlfriend – who also happens to be the beloved of her own husband – around tempting Emyr and scaring off trade opportunities. So: Emyr, married to someone else, Idrys still a part-time hound, and he and Áine – an infanticide three times over – basically banished. Was killing three children worth this ending? Really?
As the main body of the book ends (there is an epilogue), Áine can’t tell them what she had to do to break the curse. She promises to tell later, though – and I simply can’t believe Idrys – or Emyr – would accept it.
In skimming the text for the Welsh names that would not stick in my mind, I was painfully reminded of this:
Trahaearn, on the knife he was commissioned to forge: “It was not until I’d finished that I realized what I’d made. Once sharpened, that knife would be capable of killing any fey. The Wind’s Daughter is petty, her ire easily raised. To give her a weapon such as this, well, I could not agree.”
No more curses, no more hurting.
Needless to say, I would have done things very differently. Clever alternative, as above – or, simply, fine, if she’s going to have to give up being a wisewoman she needs to go kill the evil bitch who cast the curse, and suck it up and take her place. Seren was never closely confined, obviously: she was able to reach out to the twins and ensnare them in the first place. I could see this option going one of two ways: either Áine selflessly gives up her vocation as a wisewoman to kill Seren and then selflessly gives up her claim on the men she loves to take Seren’s place and never see them again – - or she selflessly etc. and kills Seren and gets some kind of message out – through Bran, or through the March Cann, or through Blodeuedd, or something – for the twins to come to her periodically (since Idrys is, literally, dead to the world, maybe he could go live with her?) … I don’t know. Anything but this.
This LTMG fell through the cracks; the format I had to download it in at the time I won it some months ago, PDF, meant I would have to read it on the screen of my laptop which, while very doable, can be awkward, especially as I haven’t figured out how to bookmark in Adobe (if you can -?). (Excuses, excuses.) So my read of this book and the subsequent review have been a long time coming. But now I have a Kindle, and the galley took very nicely to conversion.
So did I, and so, hopefully, this review will make up for the delay. I love this book. Not only because it brings back happy memories of The History of Western Art in art school with the Assyrian winged man-headed bulls – which I now know are called shedu.
It’s as alien a world, in some ways, as can be found in any fantasy novel. While there are horses and beer and all sorts of familiar trappings, the sun is not the sun, nor the stars the stars, and the character names are very different. I love the main character’s name Alit, and may steal it. Or just rename my Kindle, because it’s kind of ideal. The sun, by the way, is Anki’s Chariot, and the stars his Ashuras. But the alienness is counterbalanced by the fluid, colloquial dialogue. The tablet house Alit and her brother run (writing letters for a largely illiterate society) is presented no differently from any more familiar business, the introductions to its purpose and doings made seamlessly. There is no pretension here, no “behold all the research I did which I here demonstrate in odd subject and verb placement”, or calling wine by the word people in that time and place would have used. That is generally a sure way of creating distance between the characters and setting of a book and its readers, of constantly reminding readers that this is a book and these are not real people. The wonderful characters in these pages are aggressively, vividly alive, and they speak as they speak without a care under Anki’s Chariot for what historians might think of the style of it. The research is obvious in the simple veracity of the setting – and the writing has an authority which lets the characters curse and gossip in perfectly ordinary English without raising hackles.
Funnily, for no good reason the writing has been making me think of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser (which I read a very long time ago, and may not have borne any resemblance to GFF at all) – and the Amazon description reads thusly: “inspired by Mesopotamia under Persian rule and the sword-and-sorcery pulps”. Well there you go.
A discussion about all the things wrong with fantasy (on limyaael’s journals) delved into setting once upon a time, and derided the tendency to set fantasy in the same settings over and over. There are, it must be admitted, more Celtic fantasies than are strictly required by quota – and I say this as a complete and utter sucker for a good Celtic fantasy. But with the whole wide world at your feet and all of time to choose from, it is perhaps remarkable that writers keep going back to the familiar, the well-trodden path. Marcin Wrona took Frost’s other path, and while it hasn’t made all the difference – he is by far a good enough writer that a Celtic fantasy by him would undoubtedly be just lovely – it has made a difference. It’s a joy to be a tourist in a new land, to gawk at the mosaics and the fashions, to experience the sophistication and the barbarity, and to try to avoid seeing the bodies impaled on the hillsides.
I tried – I really did. I tried not long after I first got the book, and the writing fought me, and I set it aside. Shame drove me to try again because this was a LibraryThing Member Giveaway book. I was determined to read it.
But the writing still fought the effort. Phrasing was awkward; there was no infodumping, I'll give the writer that, but there was also little effort to give me any threads of story to weave into a rope to hang onto; the names grated on me, mostly Earth-ish (Grace and Pearl and Peter and William and so on) but not all (Dar and Silva and Shyra and Phoresa and such– and then there was Rebekah, which with its more Jewish style was just odd in this context.) I made it a couple more chapters, but still had no real idea of setting or background or who anyone was supposed to be (or why I was supposed to care) when I hit the final wall: the main character got "a bit sweaty" before lunch and hoped she would have a chance to visit the "powder room".
The powder room?
From wisegeek.com: "The term powder room dates back to the early 18th century, when it was used to refer to a closet-sized room where people went to have their wigs repowdered." Currently a euphemism for a public women's room. Or, of course, the place where gunpowder and shot is stored. And, unless this fantasy world is closer to our own in some period later than 1800, ridiculous in this context.
Sorry. Can't do it.
One of the literary devices I’m always a complete sucker for is the character plucked from her own time and dropped, clueless, into another, whether through straightforward time travel (if there is such a thing) or some kind of sorcery. It’s the latter in The Elsingham Portrait – apparently – and lots of fun. I won this book through LibraryThing’s Member Giveaways – thank you to the publisher and LT.
Kathryn Hendrix is having a bad day. Her boyfriend invited her to lunch, and she has been sitting at their table alone for over an hour, the rosy dreams she started out with of engagement rings and white weddings and an escape from her dreary, dreary life have begun to whiff away into nothing. Humiliation finally wins out over optimism, and she catches a bus to go home to her dreary apartment, only to see from the height of the bus just why her man never showed up: he is otherwise engaged. With someone much prettier and better dressed than Kathryn. With some thoughts of trying to reach him, she hurries off the bus, but it’s too late. And it starts to rain. And she left her umbrella somewhere. And she had jumped through a few hoops to be granted the time off from her dreary, underpaid job as a NYC librarian in order to meet Don … Crushed, unable to go back to work and face the coworkers who will certainly be expecting her to show up with a diamond, she takes shelter in what turns out to be an art gallery.
The focal point of the gallery’s collection is a stunning painting of a stunning woman in a golden gown. Kathryn looks into the painted eyes … and suddenly finds herself transported back to the time of the painting, 1775, and into the woman in the painting, the evil (or much-maligned) Lady Nadine Elsingham. Things do not go uphill from here.
Kathryn’s struggles to find help from someone, anyone, are largely realistic. Everyone around her believes that either Lady Nadine is up to something new, or she’s gone mad, or possibly both, and without any real proof of who she is and where (and when) she’s from Kathryn begins to have suspicions of her own about her sanity. She starts out by talking about the revolt about to happen in the Colonies – but since it hasn’t happened yet it doesn’t exactly serve as proof. Here the author missed a big step, for me: Kathryn asks the date, and is told that it is April 18, 1775, and I squeaked a little:
Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
I guess Kathryn doesn’t know her Longfellow, though, because instead of giving a similar squeak she begins talking about Lexington and Concord on April 19. Which meets with deep skepticism. It’s a tricky situation; anything she says which can’t be verified counts as raving; anything which can be verified counts as witchcraft – and either way she could end up slapped into Bedlam. Her strange accent is considered a trick; her lack of recognition for people around her is considered deceit; her apparent change of demeanor from cold and cutting to warm and innocently bewildered is considered bait for some new trap she’s setting. She can’t really win.
There are two things which – please be warned – may be spoiler-y which bothered me a little:
First, and less spoilerific, is Kathryn’s deep desire to return to her own time. In a way, I suppose, it bucks expectations: she has gone from being a somewhat plain and impoverished girl trapped in a somewhat dead-end boring job who has just been jilted … to being a gorgeous and wealthy woman, waited on hand and foot and married to a thrillingly handsome man. But she fights like mad to return home. It isn’t equal rights or sanitation or modern(ish) medicine or frustration with 18th century clothing, or even concern for the original owner of her current body that seems to drive her – it’s simply that she elsewhere and feels she needs to return. It never seems to occur to her until very late in the book that it might be a fine thing to begin to settle where and when she is.
The second thing (more spoileriferous), in two words: How? And – Why? Kathryn never learns the mechanism by which she was booted back two centuries, and therefore neither does the reader. Did it indeed have something to do with the evil witchy woman who apparently never left Nadine’s side, and the strange drug she would dose her charge with? Was it a spell? Or simply some bizarre Twilight Zone-esque swapping out of two women discontented with their lots? I would have loved to have seen at least a glimpse of Nadine’s fate; did she indeed swap with Kathryn and find herself dowdy and confused in a bewildering world of noise and speed, or did Kathryn just vanish (or collapse, an empty shell) and Nadine wisp out into the ether? In fact, I would love to see a companion book to The Elsingham Portrait, telling her story – free of the constraints of her day, in the era of mini-skirts and free love, her strong personality would have a blast, and free of the evil influence of the Donner woman she might turn out to be a decent human being. (In fact, I would love to completely steal this whole idea. Maybe someday after I’ve written the other eleventy-one ideas floating around in various states of completion…)
I received The Runaway Debutante through LibraryThing’s Member Giveaways in exchange for a review, thank you; it is part of a re-release of the author’s light romances, decades out of print, in digital format. The story is a cute one, and on the whole probably no more improbable than many another; the trick with an unlikely story is all in the pulling off of it. Here, a sheltered, rather plain eighteen-year-old girl runs away from her seriously evil parents to avoid being handed over to a seriously evil old lech in lieu of cash payment of her father’s gambling debts. Having spent her youth in the kitchens with her father’s French chef, she takes a job in an inn which very fortuitously just happens to need a cook right away and proves herself to be a good one despite her youth and femaleness. She is in fact so good that she is shortly hired away by a soldier who lost an arm but gained a kingdom: he has unexpectedly come into the inheritance of a Scottish castle and lairdship, and needs a staff complete, including a chef.
Of course, very soon he – Major Robert Bruce, and oh yes I will come back to that – realizes that she’s much too young and fine to be a chef (if you read that with a sarcastic voice in your head, well done), and proposes to her instead. Elitism aside, it’s kind of a shame that, having established Matilda’s cooking skills – which after all saved her skin – the story drops them as being far too unladylike to pursue. In the second half of the book she doesn’t pick up a spoon except to eat. I would have liked to see her at least instruct a servant or surprise her soldier with a dinner or something of the sort. Or perhaps she might have been useful in the hiring of a new chef, which never happens where we can see it; again, it’s a hole in the story. (There’s also something about a male French chef in that kitchen that bothers me, but I don’t think it’s anachronistic. Can’t pin it down.)
In order to take his new place, Bruce knows he must win over townsfolk who were thoroughly alienated by his predecessor (it is never really said how – examples might be nice. Scots don’t drop their loyalties easily), and in the midst of that battle is confronted with a new challenge: a letter from someone else claiming to be the rightful heir. In the course of the fight to retain his new inheritance, there are plans made, and in the course of the fight Matilda seems to take Bruce for an idiot (assuming he’ll be taken in by the rival claimants and so on), and he seems to take her for an idiot (not telling her his plans and so on), and in the end they both come off as idiots.
It’s cute – but rather than playing on the Scottish blood I possess and making me happy with swinging kilts and pseudo-Gaelic, it went a fair distance toward offending said blood. The idea of the Sassenach strolling in and becoming laird is bad enough, but I imagine it isn’t impossible. The idea of the Sassenach strolling in, putting on that swinging kilt, dressing his men in same (as if London laddies would stand for that so readily), and openly speaking in what could be interpreted as anything from mocking to just lame (injecting attempts at colloquialisms into his speech) … this is not the way to win hearts and minds, not in Scotland and not elsewhere.
The instant and overwhelming loyalty – nay, blind devotion – of every single servant Bruce hires, resulting in hordes of folk working above and beyond for him – while, I can only imagine, whistling tunefully all the while – is a bit much. I mean, why? Soldiers of that period, from what I’ve seen, were a step above the drunks found unconscious outside pubs – a small step; as far as I know the loss of a limb in battle was not looked at in this period as it is now, and all of Matilda’s protests to the contrary (the lady doth protest too much?) he would not be seen as a complete man in that time, not at first glance. His magnetism is all tell, no show: I would have liked a little more foundation for the instantaneous devotion. “A little touch of Harry in the night” sort of thing, or even, dare I say, a “Saint Crispin’s Day”.
That’s the pattern, though; we are told repeatedly how darling Matilda is, how feisty and so on, and how purely awesome Bruce is – we’re never really shown it. (Oddly, though we’re told how wonderful and handsome and all he is, it’s two-thirds of the way in before we’re told which arm was amputated.) And, when all’s said and done, there is a hard and fast dividing line between “us” and “them”: “Matilda … was proud of her loving servants”. When all’s said and done, they’re employees. I’ll come back to that as well.
The cute (of course) and coy love scenes between Matilda and Bruce, especially the first one, had me almost wishing for the frank and straightforward raunch of most current romance novels. It erred so far on the side of propriety that insulin was very nearly called for. Use of adjectives bothered me a bit in those scenes and throughout. It’s beginning to sound like I’m using a magnifying glass to find nits to pick, but the effusive language did irritate – it was constant and fulsome, and more of the telling rather than showing. Matilda is “the little maid” with “the small face” and, better yet, “this stubborn, high-couraged little battle-maid”, in the space of a couple of pages.
What bothered me a bit more than the use of adjectives was the sheer irredeemable evil of the parents. I tend to rebel against characters who are too much of one thing or the other – utterly good (like Matilda) or so deep-dyed in villainy there isn’t a bright spot about them but the gleam of teeth. It can be done, but it’s preferable, for the most part, for there to be some reasonable back story to justify it. Iago, Mordred, Sauron, Scrooge, Macbeth, Lucifer himself – they all had reasons for becoming what they are. Matilda’s parents are simply evil – not just neglectful, but actively and demonstrably bad. I kept waiting for some small show of concern that their daughter might be hurt or dead, but there was nothing but concern for their own situation and how her taking off threatened them. While this is useful to the story in a way – you see? They’re so terrible she had to leave, and this way she doesn’t have to worry about them any more than they do her, and in fact never needs to think about either of them ever again – but it’s still pushing credibility. More to their characters might have been helpful: say, because of a difficult birth they were never able to have another child, and perhaps the estate is entailed, or her father was set on having a son and heir, or … something, anything other than simply “they’re evil”. The malevolent suitor actually has a motive – he’s a lech and needs an heir and no decent girl is going to marry him of her own free will. The parents are just escapees out of a bad fairy tale.
What bothered me more than the parents was character name choices. Laying aside the question of whether or not a clan could or would or should ever be formed this way (though I think it’s absurd that English men and women would drop their English lives, don tartans, and swear allegiance to Alba and a man they met fifteen minutes ago, and equally absurd that such a “clan” would ever be accepted by the natives; and, too what kind of clan is made up entirely of servants? “Clann”, I find, is Scots Gaelic for “children”) – just the simple, to me, wrongheaded use of names is bordering on the offensive. “Major Robert Bruce” is awful, but might have been carried off. But to offset that by naming another character Wallace is abhorrent – and for that Wallace to be a cowardly little weasel is inexcusable.
The Kindle edition I received had some typos, occasional dropped letters: ad for and, so man for so many. Hopefully those can be cleaned up.
I’m rather happy that Miss Alford doesn’t meet a handsome ghillie and fall in love by the end of the story. Polly seems to be on her way to it, which is fine; if Miss Alford had fallen for MacLeod or something it might have pushed this into wall-banger territory. I’m rather disappointed that Lord Tark’s urgency to find a bride right now is never explained; it is hinted, several times, that there is a specific reason that he wants a bride and an heir immediately, but unless it’s simply that he’s not getting any younger it’s left unspoken.
Why were there two weddings? Why did they pick up, ride off not knowing if the rival claimants might not arrive sooner than expected, hie them off to Gretna Green, pledge troth, weep copiously, ride back to the castle, and – on the same day, forsooth – have a big wedding there, Bruce having arranged it all with the minister well beforehand? (In 1856 Scottish law was changed to require 21 days’ residence for marriage) What, exactly, was the point of all of that? Also, why were there two dresses? Why didn’t he simply say “look, babe, trust me: just buy this dress, and here’s the reason” rather than spending an exorbitant amount of money on a Grand Gown, wasting the seamstress’s time and giving Matilda the period of humiliation thinking about how the dress was going to wear her and not the other way ’round? Only to destroy the dress – which, good grief, I don’t care how much money you’ve got, that was ridiculous. And she did love the thing, even if it was silly.
I was charmed by this story. That's not a word used much anymore, charmed, but it applies. There was a surprising amount of character development in 8200 words, and I really enjoyed those characters: Lana had more depth than I expected, Seree was nicely rounded, and their father was terrific. I have a new favorite Smashwords author!
This was - as others have said - short and sweet. Megan Derr can pack a lot into a short story - character development (even walk-on characters think they're the heroes of the story), backstory, and some really lovely writing. I loved it.
I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but I'm impressed by the storytelling here. Excellent writing, well-rounded characters with a well-made world to move around in. There's a reason I am working my way through all of Megan Derr's stories: they're good.
Why do I keep doing this to myself? After some of the encounters I’ve had with self-published authors, not to mention the dreck I’ve read for Netgalley and LibraryThing giveaways and because I got it free on Ammie, why do I still do it?
I’m a masochist, and/or optimistic because of the very few real successes I’ve come across, I guess, and a sucker for a premise that sounds promising. (Also the chalice with the palace or the flagon with the dragon.) So I keep going back to the LibraryThing giveaways, and keep putting my name in.
I feel like I’ve said this about a thousand times (well, it’s probably only a few dozen): This could have been so much better. With objective editing, with a firm hand and White’s Elements of Style, this could have been quite good. As it is, it had some nice elements, but, though pretty short, was a terrible slog to finish. (I was sleepless, and perversely persevered. Sorry, looks like it’s going to be that kind of day.)
The story begins with a boy in a wheelchair who discovers that he can fly when he finds himself doing so to save the life of a little girl he’s just met. He can’t walk, but he can fly, and he begins a sort of disabled-Superman existence, wearing armor as he flits around the neighborhood stopping evil-doers. The armor is partly so his Clark Kent persona will not be known, partly to intimidate the truly stupid and cowardly bad guys he chases off, and partly in case anyone takes a shot at him – though this is one of the places I sighed over the book, because the reason knights stopped bothering with armor was that bullets went through it.
Another sigh I sighed over that armor is that he went from finding out he could fly to, within a very short span of time, flying about with an additional 80-odd pounds added to his weight, and had no problem adjusting. Right.
And still another sigh came because he started wearing the armor when he was twelve, and was still wearing it – after considerable growth and muscular development – at twenty. I guess he was sort of swimming in it at twelve; maybe he really strapped himself in.
The biggest armor-related sigh, though, was more of a groan, and it wasn’t so much over his armor as his sword. Or, rather, the sword’s sheath. You see, one day the main character receives a sword in the mail, a claymore. He decides to go out and fly around with it, to play with it. Someone begins shooting arrows at him (and a friend). Once the shooting stops, he decides to go pick up “a few stray arrows”. “Scooping up the arrows, he stashed them in his sheath with his sword.”
A few arrows.
He stashed them in his sheath.
With his sword.
Which is not the sword he usually wears with that armor, but, as I mentioned, a claymore: far larger than the blade he usually wears with the armor. There was no mention of switching out the scabbard. So the bloody sword shouldn’t have fit all by itself. The sword plus “a few… arrows”? I wanted to slap someone.
I don’t even know what to say about the fact that the main character can stand, and can leap, and more than hold his own in a swordfight – but he is confined to a wheelchair because he can’t walk. Eventually some sort of nonsensical wisp of an explanation shows up, but it’s not good enough by a long mark. Of course, once the boy figures out he can fly (there’s no learning curve – he just flies) he starts leaving his wheelchair at the bottom of the staircase and levitates up to his bedroom, and then proceeds to float about getting himself ready for bed and suchlike. Hitherto, a servant had always had to carry him up, help him bathe and dress, and put him to bed. Does anyone – his grandfather, the household full of servants they start out with – notice?
I’m tired of cutting writers slack over grammatical and punctuation errors. There’s no need for them. None. Especially when there are two writers involved, as here. If you can’t tell that this is a bad sentence:
(from the first page) “The maid, Sarah, with her strong Scottish burr, patted him on his shoulder”;
“His eyes trained up the landmark tree”
Or that the commas are completely unnecessary in these fragments:
“sparse, blond hair”; “giant, brown eyes”; “the ugly, brown, wooden chair”;
Or that this makes no sense:
“Thompton’s visage stepped back”;
If you’re going to commit unintentional funnies like “the freedom of this new discovery [that he could fly] made his soul take flight”; or having the boy clench his fists and then three paragraphs later clench his jaw;
If you’re going to set your book in 1894 and talk about “personal space” and other 20th-21st century concepts (I’ll allow “ok” in 1894, but I still growled) –
Then I have no desire to read your work, and you should be ashamed of asking me to, much less asking me to pay 2.99 for it on Amazon. (To be clear, I myself was not asked to pay for this; it was a LibraryThing Member Giveaway book, and therefore free to me.) If you can’t be bothered with internal logic and worldbuilding, I can’t muster up too much enthusiasm for your work. As I’ve said a thousand times (or maybe just a few dozen), there are literally millions of other books out there. You have to earn my time and money. If I had paid for this I would be peeved; as it is, I regret the time put into it.
Oh. Oh dear. I was going to end there, but I figured I’d better check my facts and make sure this book was indeed self-published. It’s not. In fact, the publisher has a page titled “Why Shouldn’t I Just Self-Publish?”, which includes this statement: “We provide a team of experienced people who will help you with editing, artwork, promotion, and be there when you have a question. Because of your team, you can concentrate MORE on writing and less on editing, marketing, and all the rest of the work.” Oh my God. I had originally given this two stars – it just lost a star because of that.
A Dodge, a Twist and a Tobacconist
on Oct. 17, 2013
This was a LibraryThing Member Giveaway.
I’m not going to rate this. I often do rate even books I’ve been unable to finish – but this one has me puzzled. First of all – great title (although it felt like the author stretched a bit for it). The writing isn’t bad, for the most part. I really like the idea – it’s The League of Extraordinary (Ladies and) Gentlemen (the author says so). The book description – based on which I requested it – sounded good. I liked some of the character choices – Mowgli and Bagheera, and Edward and Elinor Ferrars! I squee’d a little Janeite squee, though I thought the latter pair a strange choice for crime-fighting. (I’m picturing Emma Thompson’s Elinor reducing bad guys to jelly with scathing wit. Hugh Grant’s Edward could possibly be a Lord Peter type, so seemingly ineffectual that evildoers never see their undoing coming.) I didn’t know most of the rest – several are from Alcott other than Little Women and its sequels, and the main character is from Stevenson. I’ve heard of Sluefoot Sue and Pecos Bill, peripherally, and Twist, I think, needs no introduction. But see, the reason The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was such a great idea was because it the Gentlemen had Extraordinary abilities. Not to disparage the Ferrars, or some of the others involved here, but high moral standing just isn’t on a par with invisibility or super strength when it comes to fighting bad guys.
In theory, as I said, this was a fun idea. In practice, it was a bit awkward and shambling. I don’t know how it would have flown if I had known all the characters from their original sources, but I do know I wasn’t thrilled with this interpretation of Twist, or Mowgli, and certainly not of Elinor and Edward. It was strange, though, that the dialogue of Mowgli and the Chinese character were almost undistinguishable from the other characters’, except for a slightly stilted quality – but when Sluefoot Sue comes in she is all dropped g’s and other cliché cowpoke dialect.
There were other choices in the writing that I quickly grew tired of. I enjoyed myself, for the most part – until the other characters were brought in. It got confused; years pass, and it is in those years that his official adventures (by Robert Louis Stevenson) take place, and then are referred to by characters in the past tense. Having never heard of Florizel of Bohemia before, I was a little lost. There was no real introduction to the “League” members; for all I knew from how they were presented they were some or all the products of the author’s own imagination.
(Then there was the error of “reigns” on a horse, and the horse “backpeddling”, and I sighed.)
Really, though, the biggest problem with the writing was as the League of Improbable Crimefighters came together and began to give accounts regarding adventures the whole group was not privy to. It was a bit irritating to go from first-person-Florizel, the setting of the book as a whole, to first-person-someone-else, as other folks gave reports. I didn’t have a problem knowing who was talking at any given time; the reports are italicized to set them apart. But to be blunt I think it takes a bit more skill than is evidenced here to pull off rotating first-person narratives. So there’s that – but what annoyed me the most about the report sections was that the style of writing continued on just the same. Here were these passages which were supposed to be one person or another filling his companions in on events – but rather than being written as monologues, as natural-feeling explications, they were filled with extraneous detail of what people – including the narrators – were wearing, or setting descriptions, and so on: having dialogue tags like “mused” and “echoed” in the main narrative was one thing, but having such show up in characters’ reports was silly. Worst of all was the last one I read, from Sluefoot Sue, which featured in all its … glory the dialect her character was saddled with. Why, I couldn’t help thinking as I read, would she cast her own speech in the dialect – or, more to the point, I suppose, if the reports were supposed to be verbal, why wouldn’t the whole report be in dialect? It all just seemed an odd choice. That was when I started skimming.
The thing that made me drop the book was the proselytizing. It took me completely off guard. Meetings end in prayer. God is credited with all things good. Now, this isn’t exactly bizarre for the time period, 189-, and considering one of the characters is, as I said, Edward the minister, but it’s heavy-handed. Edward didn’t whap people over the head with Christianity in his original incarnation; while Alcott’s books are obviously Christian in tone I still have never had the feeling Alcott was trying to convert me, nor her characters each other.
It’s when, at about a third of the way into this book, the Chinese character from Alcott and Mowgli both give humble thanks for having been delivered from the darkness of their previous faiths that I hit the Menu button to move on. I’m not an atheist, and I was in no danger of bursting into flames by reading it – but I went into this expecting a fun steampunk tale, not a sermon. And checking back in with the Goodreads description I find this: “Soar over London in a stealth glider, and witness the true redemption and restoration no one imagined.” Sounds like the religiosity will become stronger yet.
But it was such a fun idea! It would be a joy to see it done well. And now, unfortunately, even if I had the time or the drive I wouldn’t really be able to try it myself (except privately, maybe), given that it has been done here, albeit not so well. Pity.
I won this novella through LibraryThing’s Member Giveaways.
As the synopsis says, Tsurugu no Kiyomori is a sort of magic-using private eye, hired to protect a warlord’s new bride from a kitsune (often malicious fox spirit) they believe is near, and threatening. Kitsune can and often do take human shape in order to work mischief (and worse), and it could be anyone – or no one. And – again, as the synopsis says – a PI in ancient Japan doesn’t have the leeway a classic American gumshoe would, since a mistaken accusation against, say, the bride herself could end in very ugly, very painful, possibly very fatal results.
Tsurugu is partnered – against his will – with a warrior named Shishio Hitoshi, who makes up in grit and determination what he lacks in magic. They become a good team, until they aren’t any longer, and that’s the problem I had with this story. I’ll come back to that. It was well done, with several factors that made it both a very good and a very bad followup to Yamada Monogatari – there were surprising similarities (which is why it was both good and bad). I’m not in any way suggesting anything hinky about either book – just surprise at a superficial resemblance. This is a quick tale (wouldn’t it be fun to write stories about kitsune in sets of three? Three tales? Geddit??) which encompasses a pair of mysterious twins, a dog hunt (which was, I felt, an unnecessarily ugly scene, but at least it was not graphic or detailed), and a beautiful bride who may not be what she is supposed to be.
The twist in the tail tale was very much a surprise, and so was effective in that way – but it was so very close toThe kitsune Kuzunoha. Note the shadow of a fox...the end of the novella that I think I was still thinking “What … just happened here?” when I hit the last sentence. With the fast pace of the story, it felt like flying along on a bobsled, hitting a wall, and continuing to fly along without the benefit of the sled for a while until I came to a spinning stop several yards away. (This would be one of those rare times I wish I knew where to find a gif that would illustrate that better.) Once I stopped blinking in surprise, I think I was just unhappy about the whole thing. It was clever – I just didn’t like it.
But, to end this at least on a positive note, I do love kitsune. I love that the fox-as-trickster trope is as strong in Japan as it is in Native American lore. I love that the creatures can be malice personified or merely mischievous, can fall in love with human and be willing to kill anyone else. They’re a fascinating class of being, and it’s fun to see them as much as I have lately. And they have three tails – how cool is that?
What a fun premise: Meek librarian discovers her beloved husband might be having an affair and reacts in the only way she is equipped for: signs up for a local seminar. However, though she signs up for "Mending Marriage or Decent Divorce" in 96F, she winds up in "The Warlord Way to Waging Profit" (or "China's Military Genius for Maximizing Management") in 96E. She starts to leave – but if she leaves, the class will not have enough students to continue; the professor works his wiles on her to convince her the class could be useful to her.
'Well, I'm trying to keep a family united, not all of China.'
Professor Baldwin took a deep breath. 'But all of Cathay isn't as important to you as that family.'
And she stays. And as the weeks go by, as the rest of the class applies the tenets of Sun Tzu to their business affairs and she does her best to apply them to her husband's affair, things change. Jane changes.
I love a good turn of phrase, and I'm as guilty as just about anyone of overusing metaphor and simile in my own writing. But Love and the Art of War takes it to a whole 'nother level. A hefty percentage of the lines in Love and the Art of War are witty – and, every now and then, perhaps a shade too witty. But the majority made me smile, either with my lips or in my head ("Joe's career at the BBC was still afloat, in a drowning-not-waving sort of way."), so I'm fine with living with the occasional over-reaching clunker.
At the heart of the book is books; I wanted more.
Books had saved Jane from the miseries of her own teenage years…
All the more precious to Jane then, when a tiny borrower, having tumbled to the promise of exiting the library with an armful of free picture books, queued between the DVD-toting teens and clucking pensioners.
At such moments, Jane whispered to Chris, 'One more little soul saved from the pixels.'
- ~ - ~ - ~ - ~ - ~ -
Rupert lived in a narrow book-lined house overlooking the heath. John Le Carre once lived nearby. Jane liked to pigeonhole London's nooks and crannies with the delicious knowledge that had she dared, she could knock on a particular author's front door and one of their characters would answer. You could even play the game on nearby Chalcot Square. Knock on Number 3 and Sylvia Plath's ghost peered through the front window. Stroll a few metres southward toward Frederick Forsyth's old digs and bump into the Jackal cleaning his gun in his dressing gown. London was full of authors, the dead ones commemorated by blue plaques for mere civilian readers, but still breathing for a librarian. The whole world around Jane shimmered with invisible dimensions, angles, and parallel realities created by writers.
I would have loved a lot more of that, and of Jane's integration of The Art of War into her life. It was brilliant, and I loved it. I loved the whole first half of the book.
What I didn't particularly want was the terrorism plot that began to gain more and more prominence in the story. It was a shift in the focus of the book that jangled, in discord, against the rest; it was as though a story that started out as a smart and funny and thoughtful rom-com suddenly wanted to be shelved in Action!Adventure! It all came together in the end – an end I didn't entirely expect, but was glad of – but it was rocky there for a little while.