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Recently read: The Wedding Ring Quest by Carla Kelly

Ms. Kelly has long been a favorite historical romance writer of mine.  I found her through a recommendation back when Signet was still publishing trad Regencies.  Her books were a little unusual for trads in that most of the heroes and heroine were not titled, or if they were gentry they had often fallen on hard times.  Ms. Kelly is now published in the Harlequin Historical line for “regular” romance, with inspirational romances published by what I believe is an LDS publisher.

The Wedding Ring Quest is the story of Mary Rennie, an orphan lady of spinster-ish age who has been sent off in pursuit of an heirloom ring that was tossed into the batter for Christmas fruitcakes by her feckless cousin to whom the ring was given.  As she pursues the ring, she meets Captain Ross Rennie and his son, who are en route to Scotland for the holidays.  Napoleon has recently been sent to Elba and Captain Rennie is ashore after long “employment” by the Corsican.  After comparing family trees, it turns out that Mary and the captain are distant cousins.  Intrigued by the idea of chasing a ring in a cake (and also perhaps looking for an excuse to avoid his sister’s post-war plans for him, they join in the pursuit, which takes them to York and beyond. 

Mary as a character confused me.  She has no significant dowry but is described as pretty.  Her guardians aren’t oppressive but they also aren’t engaging or encouraging.  She hasn’t been treated as a drudge but she also hasn’t been treated as an equal to their daughter.  She’s unmarried…because? Because of a lack of men due to war? She was sympathetic is a sort of generic way, but I never really cared about her.

Captain Rennie was also sympathetic: a fish out of water in a way, now that he’s on land, suffering from grief and also maybe PTSD.  His relationship with his son was lovely. 

The pursuit of the ring ended (for me) rather predictably.  The thing I had not predicted was the captain’s response, which came out of left field and was shocking.  Unless you chalk it up to PTSD maybe? And a later bit in Scotland felt not very believable.  The ultimate ending, while suitable in the sense of a fresh start for everyone, felt somewhat strained.  (I’m being purposefully vague because I don’t want to spoil anyone.)

As an example of Ms. Kelly’s work, the text or prose is fine — she has a talent for painting word pictures without being verbose.  But I never felt entirely engaged by the plot or the characters.  Still, I was very pleased to actually read a book (any book!) from start to finish without feeling bored or setting it aside for long stretches.

B- from me.

 

On The Great Book Purge:  PB Ryan’s Gilded Age Mystery series (Nell Sweeney) has been added to the “to go” pile.  As has my copy of Alex Beecroft’s debut Age of Sail novel (which I loved when first published) and several old Mary Jo Putney and Jo Beverley historicals.

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*dusts off cobwebs*

My reading has been a little thin for the last week.

I finished Blood of Tyrants, which I have mixed feelings about:  it’s better than some of the other installments, but includes a lot of telling rather than showing and its pace is kind of wonky.  The ending left me feeling as if the book is really half of the installment.  Look, I get cliffhangers, but when you drag me through Japanese politics, then Chinese politics, before getting to Napoleon in Russia?  And then leave in the middle of the Russian conflict?  Meh.

Laurence’s amnesia felt somewhat pointless in terms of plot, although it was a little entertaining if only to demonstrate how his own moral compass has shifted since he left the Navy and joined the Aerial Corps.

 

Other things of interest:

  • Jordan Castillo Price’s next PsyCop book will be out on Aug 30th
  • Lois McMaster Bujold has donated manuscripts to Northern Illinois University’s library (h/t Teach Me Tonight)
  • Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, which I enjoyed very much, has been adapted for the stage and will be playing at New York’s Public Theater this fall

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Reading progress

I finished Cara Black’s Murder in the Marais.  This book has a wonderful sense of place, perhaps as strong and specific as that of Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series.   Knowing relatively little about the history of Paris, particularly in World War II aside from the highlights taught in survey classes, I found the background to the murders and the neighborhood dynamic to be fascinating.

It is, I believe, the first book in a mystery series with Aimee Leduc as protagonist.  I’m ambivalent about Aimee:  she seems very careless of her own personal safety, which makes for an interesting adventure novel but also verges on TSTL sometimes.  Although perhaps it is not appropriate to import that comparison or standard to a mystery or suspense novel where personal risk is an inherent element of the plot?

Even so,  I’ll be keeping an eye out for other books in the series.

 

I also skimmed The Abortionist’s Daughter.  I can’t remember where or when I bought this book.  Or maybe I acquired it at a conference.  In any case, I was expecting more mystery and suspense; while the Bad Guy was revealed in the end, he was pretty predictable.  And I found the title character, Megan, the daughter of the dead abortion provider, to be a not very sympathetic character:  impulsive, selfish, unable to think outside of herself, not as smart or unique as she thought herself.  But I suppose most people are like that at 19.  None of the characters were particularly sympathetic actually; even the victim, who was admirable in many ways, was hard to find sympathetic when seen through the eyes of the other characters.

 

Robin McKinley’s Chalice, Ilona Andrews’ Steel’s Edge, and Meljean Brook’s Demon Blood are next on my list for the 50 page test.  Chalice is…not engaging me right now.  After these three, I’m going to take a hard look at my collection of categories, including most of the back lists of Robyn Donald and Susan Napier.

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Recently read: Strange Fortune

Title:  Strange Fortune

Author:  Josh Lanyon

Publication info:  (c) 2009, Blind Eye Books

Format:  trade paperback

Genre:  fantasy

Back cover copy:

Strange Days Indeed

Valentine Strange, late of his Majesty’s 21st Benhali Lancers, needs money.  Happily, the wealthy Holy Orders of Harappu are desperate to retrieve the diadem of the Goddess Purya from an ancient temple deep in the mountainous jungle  — an area Strange knows well from his days quelling rebellions.  The pay is too good and the job seems too easy for Strange to refuse.  But when Master Aleister Grimshaw, a dangerous witch from a traitorous lineage, joins the expedition, Strange begins to suspect that more is at stake than the retrieval of a mere relic.

Grimshaw knows an ancient evil surrounds the diadem — the same evil once hunted him and still haunts his mind.  However, experience has taught him to keep his suspicions to himself or risk being denounced as a madman.  Again.

Harried by curses, bandits and unnatural creatures, Strange and Grimshaw plunge onward.  But when a demonic power wakes and the civilized world descends into revolution, their tenuous friendship is threatened as each man must face the destruction of the life he has know.

The blurb is somewhat exaggerated IMO.

What did I think?  I enjoyed the book as speculative fiction set in an alternative colonial India in which magic and witches are active.  The adventure was engaging.  But the back copy led me to believe that there would be more…introspection, perhaps?  The relationship between the two men was pretty ancillary to the plot.  TBH, while I grasped the larger context of the civil conflict between the Albans and Hindush, some pieces of the plot (like Lady Isabella, and the mutineers) felt not-well-integrated.  I wonder if I knew more about the Anglo-Indian colonial experience, would I feel like the book was more cohesive?  Or maybe it is fine, just not up to the standard of the book I was rereading before this one, The Curse of Chalion, which is my absolute benchmark for fantasy as alternate histories of sorts.

What about the book as object?  Blind Eye Books is a reputable publishers and the book’s presentation is lovely.  I especially like the colors and patterns used to decorate the book cover, although I don’t love the cartoon style hero.  There were a fair number of either copy editing or typesetting misses, mostly little things like quotation marks facing the wrong way or being doubled, some dropped punctuation and missed letters and the like.

Would I recommend the book?  Yes.  With the caveat that it is not at all like Lanyon’s other work, so readers should not expect Adrien English-in-India.

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Best books read this year

It’s a little early, since I could (theoretically) read something that wows me between now and NYE…but given my schedule and to-do list, that seems unlikely at the moment.  One hundred ten books read this year, fewer than last year once again, continuing the downward trend.  Most of the ratings were clumped in the middle.  One thing that stands out is that none of the In Death or NR books I read this year made the list.  Another is that there are no genre romances from traditional or NY publishers on the list, which says something about my reading (but I’m not sure what).

Books I enjoyed the most:

  • Tigerland by Sean Kennedy (2012) — yes, review is still half-written
  • Midnight Riot, Moon Over Soho, and Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch (2011, 2011, 2012 respectively)
  • A Gentleman’s Game by Greg Rucka (2005)
  • Crucible of Gold by Naomi Novik (2012)
  • Irregulars: Stores by Nicole Kimberling, Josh Lanyon, Ginn Hale and Astrid Amara (2012)
  • Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (2007)
  • But My Boyfriend Is by K.A. Mitchell (2012)

Honorable Mentions:

  • Broken Harbour by Tana French (2012)
  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (2012)

(These last two were beautifully written and I appreciated them, but they aren’t books I’ll reread.)

Books that made me the cranky for a variety of reasons:

  • Steamroller by Mary Calmes (2012)
  • When in Doubt, Add Butter by Beth Harbison (2012)
  • Bared to You by Sylvia Day (2012)
  • Devils Punch by Ann Aguirre (2012)

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Recently read

The Hot Floor by Josephine Myles

Really like this author’s voice, although not all the books I’ve tried work for me.  This one did for the most part.  It is one of very few m/m/m books that works as something other than straight up porn, or has the third character as anything other than a brief distraction.  I thought the narrator needed a little development or more background, but otherwise was pleased with this book.  (B-)

A Younger Man by Cameron Dane

This book succumbs to pretty stereotypical bifurcation of gay men into masculine tops and feminine bottoms, in terms of equating sexual behavior with public/daily life.   In addition to having all the traditional female characteristics, the younger man was a victim/martyr (I think I was supposed to sympathize but it was Too Much) who engaged in TSTL behavior to create the two big outside conflicts.  The logic behind one Big Conflict was lacking and also playing into the Evil Woman m/m fiction trope.  Also, there was way too much sex on the page – which bogged down the pacing and made the book drag.  (D+)

Mourning Heaven by Amy Lane

This book was a complete mess.  The narrator is an utter Mary Sue who is also spineless and a creepy voyeur.  The other main character needs serious mental health care:  there’s a difference between being damaged and being broken, and love isn’t a panacea, despite the narrator’s opinion and activities.  The women in the book are either: 1) victims; 2)  losers; 3) irresponsible sluts; or 4) close-minded bigots.  In fact, the women are to blame for pretty much every bad thing that happens in the book.  The whole thing was an angsty wankfest of misery with a chaser of painful, awkward, seriously squick-inducing sex.  I kept reading because of the train wreck factor – I wouldn’t recommend it and can’t say I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t look away.  (F)

As usual, YMMV.  Both of the train wrecks have gotten fairly high ratings at Good Reads and Amazon, so…

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How hardcore are you if you keep getting rescued?

SPOILERS FOR THE QUEEN & COUNTRY SERIES AHOY.

I finished Greg Rucka’s The Last Run the other night.  It’s the third Tara Chace thriller novel; there’s also a graphic novel series that fills in her backstory and some of her adventures as a covert agent for Britain’s SIS.  Overall, I have really enjoyed the three books and the scattered graphic novels I’ve managed to find, the books more so than the graphic novels mostly because I prefer word to drawing but that’s just a matter of taste.

Tara Chase is an expert; at this point, five years have passed since A Gentleman’s Game, and she is Minder One, agent in charge of the team of three in her Ops group, and apparently fairly well-known within the espionage and intelligence community.  She gets the job done, even if in the end the outcome isn’t exactly as planned; she’s always moving, planning, thinking, reacting to changes in the situation.  And yet in both the second and third books, she’s caught and either tortured or in a very bad position, and has to be rescued.  She does a good job of evading capture for a while, and maneuvers to the point that she can be extracted or exfiltrated by her service (rather than be abandoned)…and yet she’s still being rescued.

On one hand, Rucka does a great job of demonstrating how operations never go as planned, and the outcome is often not what was anticipated, resulting in possibly horrendous blowback.  And Chace is a great character, if a little underdrawn outside of professional accomplishments.  On the other hand, are there male spy protagonists who have to be rescued in the end?  I haven’t read a lot of espionage thrillers, not since back before Tom Clancy and Jack Ryan jumped the shark, so I can’t really compare.  And the ending of The Last Run makes sense in terms of the larger plot for the book and the story arc, assuming this is either the last book or a transition book.  But hovering in my mind is the question:  how often to badass spy heroes have to be rescued in the end, and would the story be different if Tara were Tim or Tom instead?

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A Gentleman’s Game by Greg Rucka

A while back, a member of my primary fandom who works in the entertainment industry and always writes very thoughtful posts about women in the entertainment industry linked to Greg Rucka’s interview in which in explains why/how he writes strong female characters.  And later she linked to this interview, in which Rucka talked about his protagonist Tara Chace in the Queen & Country series (graphic novels and regular novels).  There’s a lot to mull over between the two pieces, but this bit is what caught my attention:

“[Hollywood is] paralyzed by the fact that it’s a female lead. That’s what it comes down to—they’re paralyzed by the fact that the lead in Queen & Country is a woman and I’ve literally had conversations with executives where they’ve said, ‘Is there any way that we can get a man up there with her?’ and it’s like, ‘Well, sure. That’s not Queen & Country. Feel free to write that yourselves.’”

After reading that, I had to check out the book.

Title:  A Gentleman’s Game

Publishing info:  copyright 2004, published by Bantam

Based on the graphic novel series published by Oni Press

Excerpt available here.

When an unthinkable act of terror devastates London, nothing will stop Tara Chace from hunting down those responsible. Her job is simple: stop the terrorists before they strike a second time. To succeed, she’ll do anything and everything it takes. She’ll have to kill again. 

Only this time the personal stakes will be higher than ever before. For the terrorist counterstrike will require that Tara allow herself to be used as bait by the government she serves. This time she’s turning her very life into a weapon that can be used only once. But as she and her former mentor race toward destiny at a remote terrorist training camp in Saudi Arabia, Tara begins to question just who’s pulling the trigger—and who’s the real enemy. In this new kind of war, betrayal can take any form…including one’s duty to queen and country.

This blurb is…not entirely accurate.  Well, strictly speaking, it is, but it skips a huge amount of plot that comes before and also implies that Tara had a choice about being used as bait.  [Not so much.]

As you might guess, AGG is an espionage thriller set in the mid-00s.

Let’s start with the title.  Spying was considered “a gentleman’s game” by the British in earlier times — why?  Because it was a sophisticated undertaking suitable only for the sort of “gentlemen”?  One of the characters in the book, not a particularly sympathetic one, laments those lost days, now subsumed in more brutal counter-terrorism activity even as he contributes to the on-going demolition.  But it begs the question:  what is so “gentlemanly” about spying really?   And since the protagonist, the highest ranking active agent, is a woman, there’s just another step away from the traditional MI-6 spy culture.  Take yet another step away from the golden/glory days as the plot progresses and the underlying agreement between agency and agent is demolished.  By the end of the novel, there are no gentlemen and no games left.

The narration is done in third person, with the perspective of several characters.  Although Tara is the main character, readers get as much time in the head of her immediate supervisor and nearly as much in the mind of a third person.  There’s even a one-off scene with the POV of a fourth character, which is a little out of place but necessary for the narrative style.  Yet this does not scream of head-hopping, the way multiple POVs sometimes do.

Readers get to know pieces of Tara Chace, mostly the pieces that are relevant to how she does her job and what makes her good at it, but not the whole of her.  Will more be revealed in later books?  I’m not sure it’s necessary.  She’s isolated and insulated by her job, yet also vulnerable because of it.  She’s extremely skilled yet also disposable, especially in the sense that there appears to be a high rate of burnout or turnover.  A love interest is presented in the book, and I felt quite ambivalent about it:  while it made sense in context, the outcome was somewhat predictable IMO.

Rucka’s writing didn’t strike me as particularly artful — there are no passages that I marked as favorites — but it flows well and the pacing is excellent.  Once I dug into the book, I couldn’t put it down.  He does a very good job of including enough politics, history, and background information about the tension and subtext of Saudi-UK-US-Israeli cooperation on terrorism to make the plot hang together without bogging the storyline down.  He also doesn’t get mired in technical information (Tom Clancy, I’m looking at your old Jack Ryan books) while including just enough for the various operations to make sense.

One of the largest issues, that of the rights of the individual in the face of national interests, of the dismantling of an institution’s modus operandi as an obstruction to political convenience, is resolved at the level of the character but unresolved on the national and international scale.  What will be the result of MI6 basically tossing Tara to the wolves?  I guess I’ll find out when I settle into the next book of the series.

I feel a glom of all Rucka’s work coming on.

Highly recommended.

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Loved, liked, and meh

Book I read last week that I loved: Novik’s latest Temeraire book, Crucible of Gold 

Several years and books ago, Novik hinted about the alternate history of the New World as a result of the existence of dragons, and in this book readers get to learn more.  But better than that, the dull, dragging narrative and clunky pacing of the last book have vanished.  While I understand intellectually that Tongues of Serpents was a set up book, it needed better editing and pacing.  (Like the second and third books, which felt like a single long book chopped in two for marketing/business purposes, I wondered a little if it would have been better off coupled with either Victory of Eagles or Crucible for better pacing and plotting because it was a disappointment on its own — that seems to be the general consensus among the readers I know.)

Anyway, I love the way the Inca and Tswana dragons and their view of their human families are a foil for the European mindset about dragon ownership, and yet at the same time highlight the possessive natures of the dragons in Temeraire’s coterie.

One particular part left me goggle-eyed and startled, because I did NOT see that coming.  Not shocked or offended in any manner and it sort of fits in retrospect, but just startled.  Sort of the way I felt when JK Rowling casually announced that Dumbledore was gay.

And the ending was good, circling back perhaps to clear up some dangling threads in the next book.

The book I liked well enough:  Fair Game by Patricia Briggs

I liked but didn’t love this book and I haven’t quite figured out why beyond a few general quibbles.  First, Anna’s development from cowering and fearful in the first book of the series to organizing and managing in this third book.  Told not shown, and not particularly believable to me given how hard Briggs worked to present her as hesitant, self-doubting and reticent.  Second, in the early books, Anna’s delicacy and short stature were made much of IIRC but in this book she is average height or taller.  Did she suddenly have a growth spurt after maturity?  Lastly, I’m growing uncomfortable with serial killers and rapists in urban fantasy and Briggs’ use of rape and/or threatened sexual assault to the female narrators and characters in her books in particular.  It’s all down to personal taste and YMMV, obviously, since a lot of other readers really loved this book.

The meh book:  Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History’s Most Notorious Women by Elizabeth Kerri Mahon

Some of the entries in this short survey are obvious (Joan of Arc); others are less so (Carry Nation); and still others are original and inspiring (Ida B. Wells).  The tone and style are extremely casual and informal, with the author making comparisons to Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, etc. — very pop culture referential, as if the author felt she had to equate each woman    It’s hard to condense the history of a complex character like Eleanor of Aquitaine to 15 pages or less, and the difficulty is very apparent here; in many of the biographies, the emphasis is on the trivial and the titillating rather than substance, which is an unfortunate waste of an opportunity.  There’s no significant analysis and the approach is not serious , and the bibliography and citations are somewhat lacking IMO.  Perhaps I’m the wrong audience; maybe a 20 year old who knows very little about history would be fascinated by this introduction to the wild women of days gone by.  Or maybe they could find the same information at Wikipedia for free.

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Making me cry: The Fault in Our Stars

I didn’t *love* Will Grayson, Will Grayson, a collaboration between John Green and David Levitan, I liked Green’s portion enough to be willing to try something else he’s written.  Yes, yes, he’s apparently a Big Deal in YA but I’m fairly disconnected from YA and also from a lot of other genre fiction.  His new book is The Fault in Our Stars.

It made me cry.

I seldom cry.

And I could not tell you when a book (or film) last made me cry or even feel a little misty-eyed.

Hazel Grace is a sympathetic narrator: she has accepted that she’s living on borrowed time* and even though she recognizes the unfairness and gets angry, she just keeps living.  Community college, favorite TV shows, keeping up an awkward friendship with an ex-classmate, going to Support Group.  She’s smart and snarky and a little bit unbelievably mature and verbose for her age, but still a great character.

And then there is Augustus Waters.  He steals the book from her.  Also smart and quirky and funny and an utter boy (although also a little too mature and well-spoken for his age, but forgiveably so).

While there is a very tender (and sexy) love story in TFiOS, this is absolutely not genre romance.  There is no HEA; Grace reminds readers constantly by her very presence and the medical equipment she drags along behind her that there will be no ever after.

I’m not entirely certain what to think of the drunken, reclusive author who has a major role but only a small speaking part in the book.  He’s a monumental jerk to Hazel and Augustus, but he also highlights the end point and limitation of works of fiction.   Because fiction isn’t real, and even though a reader can imagine “what happens next”, it’s the author’s prerogative to write (or not) whatever the next is.  And in his case, there was no next, despite how his opus ended.

In his author note at the outset of the book, Green warns readers not to read his personal life into the book, which I have not done.  But the fiction within the fiction made me wonder about Green’s position on fan fiction and its role in his popularity (or not).

 

 

*In this, she reminds me of Cazaril in The Curse of Chalion, who when reminded by another character that he was carrying a demon within and would likely die soon, remarked that this made him no different than anyone else since life was uncertain and they could all die at anytime, his death was just a little sooner and more likely than those around him.

 

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