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Don't Be Afraid of the Dork

Covered in dog hair, Obsessed with books, Wondering what it's all about. I suspect the answer is ice cream and the ocean.

The Best Archetype? Humble Boy with a Great Destiny

Magic Casement  - Dave Duncan

Format: Audio from Audible
Narrated By: Mil Nicholson
Original Publication Year: 1990
Genre(s): Fantasy
Series: A Man of His Word #1
Awards: NA

I know people get tired of the same old archetypes trotted out in book after book but I have a confession; I kind of love archetypal stories.  As long as it is done well - the details of the book unique and characters with depth and complexity - there is really nothing I prefer cozying up with.  They are comforting and inspiring and there is, after all, a reason they pop up over and over in literature.  One of my favorites is the underdog made powerful, the ordinary Joe or Jane discovering that there is something special within them and becoming the hero/heroine.  Magic Casement by Dave Duncan is this type of story.

The world of Magic Casement is a feudal Empire vaguely reminiscent of renaissance (or perhaps earlier) Europe.  The heart of the action takes place in a small but strategically key Kingdom in the far, frozen north called Krasnegar (I apologize for any misspellings as this was an audio I’m not sure how certain names were spelled).  This kingdom is ruled by a kindly, widowed king whose only heir, a somewhat obnoxious, free-spirited and tomboyish girl, is named Inosolan.  One of her best friends is an orphaned stable boy named Rap and they both teeter on the edge between childhood and adulthood (around 14-15 years old).  Almost as soon as Inosolan is sent south with her Aunt to the more metropolitan city of Kinvale to learn how to be a more proper princess and perhaps pick a husband, things start going wrong in Krasnegar.  The King’s health is failing and with the urging of an enigmatic stranger, Rap decides he must face the journey across the harsh winter countryside to warn Inosolan of her Father’s illness.  Thus the adventure begins.

A classic story but Magic Casement has a lot of elements that keep it fresh.  The setting of the book, in a near arctic environment adds some unique peril and hardship.  The different races and cultures are also fascinating.  There are Goblins, Imps, Jotnars, Fauns, Elves, and Gnomes though none are exactly as we think of them.  They are mostly human-like except for a few familiar sounding characteristics.  For example, Goblins have a slightly greenish tint to their skin and Fauns have particularly hairy legs – it is as if they represent the source for the more mythological creatures we’re familiar with.  The Goblin culture which resembles a Native American type culture that lives in the arctic wastes is particularly interesting. One of the Goblin characters, Little Chicken, makes the most unusual sidekick for the hero Rap. 

The magic system is also very interesting and the details of it are unraveled throughout the story as Rap learns about his power.  It revolves around the passing down of words of power which enhance a person’s natural abilities. 

Rap is the traditional humble boy with a great destiny and happily he fills this role engagingly.  In fact most of the characters are pretty great – I particularly liked Insolan’s Aunt Kade.

This book features only the beginning of Rap and Inosolan’s journey and ends on a cliffhanger.  It’s a good start, embracing all the elements that make this type of traditional story enjoyable while also including enough unique stuff to keep it interesting.  I’ll definitely be continuing with the series and I am glad I came across this older book in a sale on Audible. 

Final Note:  The reader is an older English woman which put me off somewhat as much of the story follows Rap - a 14 year old boy.  She didn’t match the youthfulness of much of the cast.  However, I did get used to it and in a way, given the fable like feel of the story, her choice as narrator made sense.

New York in the Mid-Nineteenth Century was Bad Y'all

Seven for a Secret - Lyndsay Faye

Format: Audio from Library
Narrated By: Steven Boyer
Original Publication Year: 2013
Genre(s): Mystery, Historical
Series: Timothy Wilde Series #2
Awards: NA

I accidently broke my solemn rule with this book and jumped into a sequel before reading book one.   It took me two or three chapters of frustration before I realized what I had done - I kept getting irritated at how I felt dropped into a world I should already know details about.  Because of this I recommend that book one be read first! I did continue reading, however, despite my anal retentive self nagging to stop.  I was interested enough, if slightly confused, to keep listening, which I think says something positive about the book’s appeal.

Timothy Wilde is a young (late 20s) “copper star” (aka policemen) in New York in the middle of the 19th century.  He is one of a small group of policemen that are prized for their brains and specialize in solving the most serious crimes.  He is assigned to investigate a stolen painting and after success solving that crime is thrust into a convoluted case involving free blacks, slave catchers, missing family members and corrupt politics.  New York and America is explored in all its squalid mid-1800s glory which at times is really interesting and at times gets a little tiresome.

Faye did a great job creating an authentic-seeming historic New York and her plot is complex and interesting. There are many references to characters and relationship histories from book one, so, again, this would likely have been a richer reading experience if I’d read the books in order. 

While my overall impression of the book is good, I do for some reason find it easier to articulate some things that didn’t work for me.  The main obstacle I ran into while reading is that I felt preached at – Timothy is very earnest, self-righteous and filled with indignation.  The story touches on many of the social issues of the day: slavery, exploitation of children in a myriad of horrible ways, corrupt politicians, poverty.  I’m 100% on board with the fact that these are all horrible, horrendous atrocities and didn’t really feel like I needed to be convinced that they are bad.  Faye lingers and sometimes seemed to detour so that she could really focus in on these issues and frankly it got tiresome and detracted from the story.  

It also, eventually, led me to find Timothy tiresome because he is the reader’s lens and he is pretty much in a constant state of righteous indignation.  I found his brother Valentine more intriguing as he is more practical, worldlier, more brilliant, a little corrupt and violent but in his way doing more good than his very naïve brother.  I think I would have enjoyed seeing the book focus on Valentine more but I do love a complicated hero so maybe it is just me. 

The final verdict is that despite some lags in enjoyment and my stupidity in inadvertently skipping book one, I overall liked the book. I like the time period and particularly crime stories set in that period so I was probably pretty inclined to like it.  Faye is a good writer at the sentence level which provides a further boost.  I was pretty fascinated with the details about the political system at the time. I do think, however, that I like Stephanie Pintoff’s series that starts with In The Shadow of Gotham better though it is set a bit later (turn of the century, I think).  Pintoff’s series has less complex storylines but is more focused and narratively driven with strong characters and interesting relationships.  So if you liked this book I would check her series out as well.

Finally, the reader for the audio book worked well as the narrator Timothy Wilde and distinguishes the other characters well and subtly. 

Not book to restore your faith in mankind but still an engaging read

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter - Tom Franklin

Format: Audio CDs from Library
Narrated By: Kevin Kenerly
Original Publication Year: 2010
Genre(s): Mystery
Series: NA
Awards: Barry Award Nominee, Anthony Award Nominee, The Crime Writer’s Association Gold Dagger, Edgar Award Nominee

I have complicated feelings about the South. I am, arguably, a product of the South. I was born and raised in Richmond,Virginia and I say arguably because I know many folks nowadays don't consider Virginia part of The South. They have a point, as it is pretty Mid-Atlantic, and I personally don’t have much of an accent. But Virginia was the Capitol of the Confederacy and this legacy is everywhere – I have 10 ancestors that fought on behalf of the South in the Civil War. I was obsessed with the old plantation houses along the James River and even tried to decorate my teenage bedroom in that style. Much of the South’s legacy, however, is very ugly and it makes it difficult to really embrace this heritage or look at it with anything but profound disgust. Richmond is also pretty segregated though not on purpose. I doubt there is anyone, even nominally as I am, from the south, that does not have complicated feelings about their home place. This is where Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter steps in. It is a book that simultaneously captures the unique flavor of the South and makes sure that it is a place of which to be wary.

Twenty five years ago, 15 year old Larry, awkward and a little strange, took his neighbor on a date and she was never heard from again. Larry was never found guilty of her murder but his “weirdness” and the circumstances ensure that he is condemned and shunned by the community of Chabot, MS. Even though Larry knows he is not guilty he seems to feel that people’s hatred and contempt for him is justified. He has had only one friend in his life, Silas, now known as ‘32’, and their friendship ended in the ugliest possible way a year or so before the event that ruined Larry’s already difficult life. The book opens in present day, just as the investigation of a missing girl has begun with Larry as the prime suspect and 32 is one of the investigating officers as he is now constable of Chabot.

The book works on many levels: as a disturbing mystery, as a portrait of life in small-town South and as contemplation on the nature of men, friendship and family and it is woven together fairly effortlessly.

As I alluded to above this book shines in evoking a tangible image of an insular and poor small southern town. Chabot, MS seems without hope and so set in its rut that, with a couple of notable exceptions, even the most intelligent of its citizens don’t question old prejudices – if you’re different there is just not enough energy to try and expand the mind to include you. Franklin also subtly depicts how the nature of racial tensions shift as the book jumps from 25 years ago to the present day. There are all the complicated feelings of being from the South and how it can in some ways trap you.

My favorite part of the book is how Franklin uses his two characters to explore the question of courage. Larry is a heartbreaking character who, on the surface, is a weak man but who at his core is quite courageous while Silas, against all appearances, is the coward. The way people treat Larry is so abominable but also believable which makes it just that much sadder. Both characters are very engaging in different ways and I rooted for both of them to have their moments of revelation. By the end…Thank goodness!...a glimmer of hope has started to shine.

The present day mystery at the heart of the book is twisted and dark and it does involve some animal cruelty which I had to kind of “La La La” my way through because I can’t take that. If you’re looking for a straight mystery I don’t think this will disappoint though it includes so much more.

The narrator for the audio book has a great voice and portrayed all the characters, especially 32, really well.

Eat Pray Love for Miles Vorkosigan

Memory (Vorkosigan Saga, #10) - Lois McMaster Bujold

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Format: Audio from Audible
Narrated By: Grover Gardner
Original Publication Year: 1996
Genre(s): Science Fiction (Space Opera)
Series: Vorkosigan Saga (#10 publication order and chronologically)
Awards: None

Dear Ms. Bujold,

It is no accident, I think, that the term master is part of your name.

Memory is the story of the downfall of an often annoying but extraordinary little man and how, as he claws his way back up, he starts to know himself and find a home. Or as one tagline for the books says: “Miles hits 30…Thirty hits back.” And of course thrown into the middle is a lovely and exciting little mystery that must be solved.

I shouldn’t have liked this book. I truly don’t love Miles though Bujold makes sure you at least have an exasperated affection for him. And a full 60 percent is seriously him searching his soul for meaning and identity. I had moments in the first half of the book where I got a little bored, a little frustrated with Miles, but I was never tempted to give up because an idea, a turn of phrase would come up that would make me catch my breath and keep reading. By the end, I was in awe of where we had come and how perfectly it had been orchestrated. Bujold knows how to build a book for the long haul. A book that is greater than the sum of the parts. I see why this is one of the highest rated books in the Vorkosigan series, at least by fans (it has a whopping average rating of 4.41 on Goodreads).

In this book Miles screws up, quite handsomely. He is forced for the first time in his hyperactive life to do nothing and spend time with himself. He is not sure he enjoys his own company and he must face himself and find out who he truly is. At the very depth of his depression, he is distracted by the odd behavior of his long time mentor Simon Illyan, head of Barrayar’s equivalent of the CIA/FBI/Homeland Security Department. When Simon ends up in dire straits in the hospital, Miles is shaken out of his malaise and starts to do what Miles does best – make waves. It’s a neat little mystery…what happened to Simon Illyan… which picks up the book's pace, gives it some focus and helps Miles discover an unexpected calling in life. Also in this book, Gregor, Barraryar’s morose Emperor, finds some happiness along with some other well-deserving characters and Miles and Simon go on the best fishing trip ever.

I have spent the last several years reading through the Vorkosigan series and had accidentally missed this book in the sequence. I really wish I hadn’t! It is a really nice setup, emotionally speaking, for the next two books in the series, Komarr and A Civil Campaign, which would have made so much more sense if I had read this first. Darn it!

One thing this book made me crave was another book about Cordelia, Mile’s mother. She is seriously kick ass and I’d love to see her and Aral at the center of an adventure again!

The narration for the audio book is pretty decent. Grover Gardner has a nice voice but doesn’t really do voices. His phrasing and the way he reads suits the writing and tone of the book however, even if the reading was less than dynamic.

Final verdict is that this is a fantastic book and has a huge payoff for fans of the Vorkosigan series. If you’re looking to start the Vorkosigan Series, for pity’s sake don’t start here!

What's your favorite book in the Vorkosigan saga? 

Case Histories - Kate Atkinson

Format: E-book on my Kindle

Narrated By: NA

Original Publication Year: 2005

Genre(s): Mystery

Series: Jackson Brodie #1

Awards: None


I’ve been meaning to read Kate Atkinson for a while now. She’s one of those intriguing authors who are not tied to a particular genre, writing both literary novels and a series of mysteries. I’m a mystery lover so decided to pick up the first in her mystery series expecting a well-written but basically mundane straightforward mystery. It’s been dramatized on the BBC after all. What I got was indeed well written but also was a mystery unique in its approach and structure.


Jackson Brodie is the detective and I pretty much immediately fell in love with him. He’s a former police inspector who now runs his own private investigation business and in many ways he is the stereotypical modern literary detective – his personal life is a mess and he takes horrible care of himself. He’s from a working class background but very clever and compassionate. He loves his 8 year old daughter, loves sad women country singers (ex. Emmylou Harris, Trisha Yearwood), can’t get over his ex-wife’s betrayal, has horrible dentistry problems. He keeps getting accused of turning into a woman to which he finally replies “There are worse things.” Indeed. He’s an awesome character, the way he relates to his life and the people in it, and the fact that he gets beaten all to hell throughout the book made him incredibly endearing.


The interesting thing is that the reader gets to know him well even though he really only appears in about 50% of the book. It is not centered on him. As the title suggests, the book focuses on three cases, mostly long cold, that people bring to Jackson’s agency. A lot of the book is spent in the perspective of the people most affected by these cases. Amelia Land, Theo Wyre, and Caroline. Amelia’s sister disappeared without a trace from a shared tent in the back yard when they were small. Thirty years later new evidence surfaces. Theo’s daughter was stabbed to death a decade earlier in plain sight but her killer was never apprehended. Caroline herself is a mystery.


The book jumps around in time quite liberally and manages to seem somewhat rambling and immaculately planned at the same time. The jumping around in time can sometimes be jarring but it also for me was the perfect way of maintaining suspense and a unique way of unfolding each of the stories. And there is a true unfolding with not just new things about the case revealed, but also about the narrators and their reliability. It was addictive reading for me and had me avoiding chores because I couldn’t stop turning pages.


The other things that struck me as unique and perhaps I’m just not remembering other mysteries I’ve read well, but I was so engrossed in these people and these lives that the crimes against them, even as far in the past as some of them were, were terribly affecting. I found myself in tears more than once which I’m not sure I can say about too many other mysteries. Jackson’s own story of his childhood when finally told was short but incredibly heart breaking and poignant.


Because the other thing that Atkinson does is start us off showing us the very heart of darkness in families. Parents who abuse, who neglect, who prefer one of their children over the other. By the end, however she has started to reveal the kernel of beauty in family (not just biological but those we choose as well) - the love that exists and that can be a healer.


As you can see I truly loved this book and am so glad I have brought Kate Atkinson into my life. I will definitely be seeking out her other books and savoring them.

The Hidden Goddess - M. K. Hobson

Format: Audio (from Audible.com)
Narrated By: Suehyla El-Attar
Original Publication Year: 2011
Genre(s): Fantasy
Series: Veneficas Americana #2
Awards: None

I read a blog post(Savidge Reads)a few months back that posited that the most important reason for writing a book blog is a passion for spreading the word about really awesome books. I like this idea and it certainly drives some of my book posts but this is the first book where I want to consciously promote a series of books and spread the love I have for them. I really enjoyed book one in this series, The Native Star, and it was nominated for a Nebula Award in 2011. In the middle of devouring this 2nd installment, I looked greedily to see if there was a book three. I was surprised to see that there was and it was self-published with the help of a Kickstarter campaign (the first two of the series were published by Spectra). I haven’t really been able to find the why of this – perhaps it was just something M.K. Hobson wanted to do – but regardless of the reason I feel it necessary to make sure at least one more word about how awesome these books are gets out into the ether.

The story takes place in the latter part of the 19th century in an America similar to our own except that magic is an accepted part of society. In The Native Star, rural California witch Emily Edwards is forced to travel cross country with academy trained warlock Dreadnought Stanton. It’s a grand adventure which ends with the rescue of the earth’s soul from blood magicians, Dreadnought being appointed as head of his field of magic and an engagement between he and Emily.

The Hidden Goddess opens with Emily feeling stifled and bored as she tries to adjust to life as a New York socialite. She hasn’t even had much of a chance to spend time with Stanton as his new responsibilities as head of the institute keep him constantly busy. And then she has a disturbing vision which urges her to go back to her California home where her Pap gives her a jar full of her youngest memories and a warning that her mother was evil hence the bottled memories. From this point on Emily begins to have visions of a coming apocalypse and develops the certain knowledge that she, as her family before her, must play a crucial part in stopping it. Meanwhile, Stanton is struggling to hold on to his professional position as things start to fall apart around him. As Emily learns more about him on his home turf she begins to question how much she really knows and can trust him.

This all sounds very dire and it is - there is lots of adventure and drama and fountaining blood (squeamish beware – it is a rather gory book) but it is saved from being overly wrought by the steadfast and awesome characters and Hobson’s fantastic sense of humor. It is chock full of clever wit and is, at times, laugh out loud funny. Hobson has the knack of achieving just the right mix of humor and pathos to make the drama very personal feeling. She fits so much into the book…a complex and fast paced story, a feminist message, a conservation message…effortlessly and in a way that completely absorbed me and never made me feel like I was getting preached at.

Two of the biggest strengths are the characters and the elaborate and fascinating system of magic. Emily Edwards is a character I will miss dearly. She’s practical and independent, loyal and clever, and most importantly down-to-earth. She is the perfect heroine, not in the sense that she’s perfect but in the sense that she is someone I would love to hang out and play cards with. There would undoubtedly be lots of laughter and likely some kind of small disaster.

The magic system is one of the most interesting I’ve encountered and is very organic, literally. Learning the rules behind it is actually really interesting and ends up being one of the best reasons to read the book. The idea of Credomancy is explored more in this book and a wonderful new character is introduced, Miss Jizenka (sp?), who helps flesh out all the fascinating intrigues that make this magic system work.

That’s all the specifics and I’m not sure I’ve really sold it. So let me finally say that I could not put this book down. I was listening to it on my ipod and I kept inventing house work to do so I could listen some more. Let me say that again: I was inventing housework so that I could spend more time with this book. That is probably ‘nuf said but I’ll end with this: it is so much fun, the writing is fantastic and it won’t cause any brain rot either. It also has a lovely and very satisfying ending. So, if you like books that blend genres (Alt-History, Fantasy, Romance), great characters, and seamless world building you MUST read this series! I cannot wait to jump into book three!


So has who else has read this series?  What do you love or hate about it?

The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure - William Goldman


Narrated By: N/A

Original Publication Year: 1973

Genre(s): Fantasy

Series: N/A

Awards: None


Like many others, I love the movie version of The Princess Bride. I have a huge soft spot in my heart for Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin as a result and I’m one of those annoying folks who can quote large sections of the movie. So I approached reading it’s literary source with excitement and trepidation. How would it measure up to the film?


First, the easy part. The film very closely follows the fairy tale portion of the novel. Even much of the dialogue remains the same, probably as a result of William Goldman writing the script and playing a major role in its production. There are a few minor changes (the book has a Zoo of Death!) but it reads much like a script of the movie. If you are unfamiliar with the movie or the book, it presents a basic fairy tale romance but with many quirky twists and an absurdist and unique humor. In this world, pirates are good guys; princes are bad guys but true love and happily ever after are still the end point even if the road that gets you to the end point is littered with R.O.U.Ss (rodents of unusual size) and a giant who loves rhymes. It is presented as if the story being told is actually an abridgement of an existing “history” written by an S. Morgenstern.


Beyond this initial evaluation things get a little more complicated. The movie is framed by the device that the fairy tale is being read by a crusty grandpa to his sick baseball- obsessed grandson. This device exists and is expanded in the book. In fact, half of the book could be said to be a, perhaps partially fictionalized, memoir of the author. It’s rather rambling and written as the author directly addressing the audience. I found these parts a little jarring and at times pretty self-indulgent but not un-enjoyable. Probably why the narrative part of the book worked so well as a movie was because it was basically novella length while the rest of the book not present in the movie is filled with asides and stories of the author’s childhood and life as a script writer.


Overall, the reading experience was good but perhaps… uninspiring. If you’ve seen the movie the book will add little. The structure and framing is interesting but didn’t really elevate the book above a light and funny romantic fantasy.


So now for that eternal question - Which did you like better?  The book or the movie?  (For me I have to say it was the movie which doesn't happen too often!)

City of Ashes  - Cassandra Clare

Format: Audio (cds from Library)

Narrated By: Natalie Moore

Original Publication Year: 2008

Genre(s): YA, Urban Fantasy

Series: The Mortal Instruments

Awards: None


After really enjoying the first in this series, City of Bones, I was somewhat unconsciously dreading picking up book two. Unconscious because I didn’t really realize I was avoiding it and because it’s weird. I’d go to the library and City of Ashes would pop into my head and before I knew it I’d be walking out of the library with a bunch of books that were not City of Ashes. Even once I finally checked out the cds from the library, I let them languish in my car awhile before starting. What the heck was going on? And then I realized it’s because I’ve been burned quite a lot lately with series that had a great start and then went horribly wrong. I really enjoyed City of Bones but by the end I could see the early scratching of some things that could turn out to be annoying. The final verdict? I didn’t really need to be worried – City of Ashes continued with many of the good things from book one and added some interesting plot twists. But I think that vague sense of worry about starting the next book in the series may even be a little stronger.


Clary now knows a lot of truths about herself. She knows that Valentine, the big bad, is her father, Jace, her crush, is her brother and turns out she is a shadow hunter by birth. She starts book two with a lot more knowledge about who she is and where she comes from but many other things in her life have been thrown up in the air in a jumble. Her mother is in a coma in the hospital, the guy she has a huge crush on is now her brother, and her best friend since childhood kinda wants to kiss her face off. And it kind of goes bonkers from there. The book centers around finding out what the big bad (Valentine) is up to and how to counter his machinations. Meanwhile more and more changes get flung at Clary. It’s a wild ride and for the most part its highly entertaining and a not too annoying melodrama.


There are a few things that really work for me in these books. The mythology is interesting and complex enough to provide endless possibilities for drama. Clary is a pretty decent female lead. She hovers between being too ultra competent for believability and completely useless so she comes across as a pretty realistically average girl dragged into big events. Most importantly, her relationships with the other characters are pretty reasonable for the most part. I love Jace. It struck me in this book that he is like a teenage Lymond (from Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles) – uber-competent and talented wearing a façade of cockiness and unconcern while underneath are wells of feeling and a cock-eyed sense of honor. Not nearly as complicated or mature as Lymond, of course, but the same general character type which I apparently love because I love Jace and Lymond. Finally I also like that we get other perspectives beyond Clary’s which I think was different then book one (though I could be wrong). I enjoyed getting in Jace and Simon’s heads and seeing the story from their perspective.


On the down side I left this book with the same and perhaps even enhanced concern that future additions to the series are going to let me down. There were a few things that got me worrying. While Clary is still on the plus side of the equation she had a few glaring TSTL (too stupid to live) moments and I’m a little worried she will not remain likeable. I didn’t love some of the things done with Jace who at times is very out of character turning into a sad and too needy puppy dog around Clary. I envision him being pretty much completely in control of himself and nonchalant, only revealing his true feelings obtusely or pretty rarely. I certainly don’t envision him begging Clary to love him and being confused at why Clary thinks incest is sickening. Seriously. He doesn’t have any qualms about incest or even recognize that it is not an acceptable social norm? Interesting choice for the character. And then there is just some general sloppiness. There are continuity errors in a couple scenes (Magnus’ excuse for not helping Clary and Jace fight the round demons because he was busy helping Luke inside, when Luke was who Clary and Jace were in the process of rescuing; a jacket in the final battle that can’t decide who its wearer is - Jace or Clary). I was kind of jazzed that a potential new romantic interest was introduced for Simon but nothing much was done with it until out of the blue ,in one of the final scenes, it’s suddenly common knowledge that Maya has a crush on Simon.


Even with some worrying weaknesses, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t fly through this book and enjoy roughly 90% of it. A fun urban paranormal YA series that, concern or not, I will be continuing with. It’s an addictive thrill ride.


Final note: The Narration by Natalie Moore was pretty decent. No major complaints.

The Last Argument of Kings

Last Argument of Kings  - Joe Abercrombie

Last Argument of Kings (The First Law, #3)Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Format: Audio (downloaded from Audible)

Narrated By: Steve Pacey

Original Publication Year: 2008

Genre(s): Fantasy

Series: The First Law #3

Awards: None but should have some!


The Last Argument of Kings left me feeling bemused, manipulated and sucker punched…but mostly in that good way books can do. It’s a pretty excellent conclusion for this overall excellent trilogy. The only thing that tempers my enthusiasm about the book is the somewhat odd rambling ending.


All the plotlines that developed in books one and two come to a head in this book. The war in the North ends in time for Adua to absorb an attack by the Gherkish which brings all the major characters into one place at the same time. While the conclusion of all the various plotlines, and the reveal and explanation of who has been behind it all, is satisfying, the thing that really makes this book and the entire series special is what Joe Abercrombie does with the reader’s preconceptions about the story and the characters.


What he does is actually kind of mean but it’s done so well that it’s hard not to appreciate what it adds. With his plots, he uses some standard fantasy tropes but twists them. In this book we get the culminating battle of a war that’s been brewing through all three books. The good guys win but are they really the good guys? And was the war even about what it seemed to be? Also there is a lot of book after the war is resolved and it never really ties things up into a pretty bow.


In regard to the characters, Abercrombie spends much of book two making the reader like them only to turn around in book three and pull the rug right out from under them and the reader. Particularly with Jezal, Logen and Ferro, he seems to be making the argument that you can run but you can’t hide from your true nature. You can try to change for the better, and sometimes even succeed, but when it comes down to it you’ll revert to your default settings. It was sad to watch and it missed the mark in some cases (i.e. I think he made Logen too likeable so his reversion and his friend’s response is a little off) but overall it adds to the interest of the plot. One lovely little detail was the character of Qwai. I felt like Abercrombie had started writing this character differently in book two vs. book one and thought it was just sloppy writing. In fact, all is explained in book three.


I was always being surprised and most so by realizing that Glokta was my favorite character. He’s one of those deliciously gray characters who does despicable things but for some reason doesn’t seem despicable. And shockingly, he is really the only character that gets any approximation of a happy ending though calling it happy may be a stretch.


Overall thoughts: This was a pretty good ending to a thoughtful and entertaining series. I found it endlessly surprising and it definitely messed with my mind but in the very best of ways. He is a writer with a purpose and a plan so this was a well done culmination of all that was laid out in the earlier books.


I think this goes down as a favorite series for me?  What are some of the best series you've read recently?

The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson

The Madness Underneath - Maureen Johnson

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Format: Audio (cds from library)

Narrated By: Nicola Barber

Original Publication Year: 2013

Genre(s): YA, Fantasy

Series: The Shades of London, #2

Awards: None


Louisiana teen Rory can see ghosts. She almost choked to death on a piece of meat at her swanky British boarding school (Wexford) in London and soon after she starts to see people no one else can see.  Book one ends with her having developed relationships with some other young folks (odd that none of them are more mature) who have the same ability and who are part of a secret branch of the London police  and with a particularly violent ghost having tried to kill her.   Book two opens with Rory suffocated in overprotective seclusion with her parents in Brighton while she recovers from her ordeal. 


Book two has a relatively different feel than book one and I ended the book unsure whether I liked the new feel or not. The boarding school setting and her school friends are faded out throughout the course of the book and even the scenes at Wexford have lost the light and cozy atmosphere of book one.  I missed not having more Jazza and Jerome though this book sort of inadvertently highlights how shallow their characterization was in book one as their disappearance doesn’t make too much of an impact.  I found it hard to take that Rory would so completely punt her schoolwork considering she had to be a good student to get into Wexford but the events of book one were likely life changing and affected her perspective about such things.  Is getting good grades really all that important when you know there’s this whole world out there that no one else can see. Most of what Rory experiences and does in this book makes sense based on what’s happened to her and it did make me think. Thinking…I don’t like to do it often but it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However there were a lot of things that happened (like some smooching out of nowhere) that I wasn’t really on board with.  Can you see how wildly I wavered back and forth?  Did I like it or not?


In the end this book comes out in the plus column for me.  Rory remains a fun (and funny) and engaging character and she’s what makes the book work.  I was frustrated with her and her decisions at times but they were all pretty well explained.  Also the book ended on a pretty crazy cliff of an ending that promises much future drama. The addition of a new and corporeal villain could work well though at the moment that person is kind of a cliché.  I’m not sure how I feel about the darker direction this series is taking but I do think it could be interesting.  I wish the secondary characters were a little more fleshed out and complex but with the drama ramped up perhaps we’ll get some more development.  So a mixed review but I did enjoy it and am looking forward to the next installment.

Anybody else reading this series?  What did you think of the different feeling or tone of this book or did you think it wasn't all that different? 



The Magicians and Mrs. Quent

The Magicians and Mrs. Quent - Galen Beckett

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Format: Hardback (from library)

Narrated By: NA

Original Publication Year: 2008

Genre(s): Fantasy, Historical

Series: Mrs. Quent # 1

Awards: None


I’ve been reading a couple of books lately that are taking me forever to read.  It’s not always the book’s fault - sometimes it has more to do with my mood and whether the book is fitting it.  The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is a book that combines fantasy, historical fiction, romance and strong elements of the English classics. I quite honestly can’t imagine ever not being in the mood for a book with all of that.  So I’m pretty sure the fact that it took me so long to get through the book had more to do with the book then my reading mood.


It is a book in three parts with each part attempting to mimic some of the English classics.  Section 1 - Jane Austen, Section 2 - Jane Eyre, and Section 3 - Charles Dickens.  It is also presented from three different character’s perspectives.  Ivy Lockwell who lives a shabby genteel sort of existence with her mother, two sisters, and her mentally debilitated father, is the primary character present in all three sections.  She is driven by trying to find a cure for her father’s mental illness which was the result of a magical event gone wrong.  While Ivy’s was my favorite of the three perspectives my liking for her had some limits.  She is definitely of the Elinor Dashwood type of heroine – a tower of strength but always proper and in control of herself, practical, abhorrent of any impropriety or outward emotion.  I find characters such as this admirable but I also find it hard to really feel close to or like them too well.  Dashton Rafferdy is a Lord’s son several stations above Ivy and does his best to be droll and responsible for nothing.  Eldyn Garritt is a friend of Rafferdy’s who is struggling to make ends meet for he and his sister after their deceased father ruined the family.  The setting is Altania which is basically 19th century England but with the existence of magic and a crazy day/night schedule (day and night length vary daily – odd this is the second book I’ve read recently that has had this kind of set up).  There is a King and Parliament which are weak and out of touch and who are facing rebellion.  Magic is a diminished force compared to their past and it is a power meant to be wielded by men only. 


The three parts of the book are pretty distinctive.  As I mentioned above, each part followed the model of an English classic and they also focus on distinctive parts of the story.  Part one, which is roughly 200 pages, is mostly set up.  Part two stays with Ivy and follows her to a remote estate where she serves as governess in a lonely and mysterious estate with a formidable owner.  This part worked best for me.  Part three returns to the storylines started in part 1 and roughly conclude them while leaving some strings unattached for a second book.


What I liked:

The setting was interesting and felt fully fleshed out with a meaningful history and current political crisis.  This is really where this book excelled for me.  I also like that the primary(ish) romance in the book was somewhat unconventional.  The middle section of the book taking place on the remote estate worked very well and was the only time I was really glued to reading.  The plot has many threads and with many directions it can go in the future though care was taken to provide some closure to most of the threads. 


What I didn’t love:

None of the characters really did anything for me.  Ivy was too good, Rafferdy too stereotypical and Eldyn was just weird.  I think the storyline that bothered me the most is Eldyn’s.  He has a sister that he almost literally keeps locked in a hotel room for weeks and his relationship with her is just odd.  In general how he reacts and interacts with other characters didn’t make sense to me.  He came across as stupid, self-absorbed and at times downright misogynistic but we’re meant to feel sorry for him and think of him as good and honorable.  I could tell that the author threw in some things to try and ensure Eldyn was sympathetic but he and the storyline did not work for me.  The attempt to include elements of Austen, Bronte and Dickens was kind of cool but it was a little TOO those things – it just came across as a poor rip off rather than something unique with the flavor of those authors. And there was a good bit of characters-doing-silly-things-that-don’t-make-sense-just-to-make-the-plot-work. For example, Ivy’s driving force in the first third of the book was to discover the secret of her Father’s history and affliction, and yet she neglects to ever ask Mr. Quent, who is an old friend of the family, how he knew her father, what their relationship was, what did he know about her father’s illness etc… It made zero sense that these would not be at the forefront of her mind especially as things develop.  He does eventually tell her of his own accord but it is odd that she never asks.


The final verdict was that this was an okay read.  I’m not sure if that is enough to vault me into reading book two but I definitely feel no drive to pick it up right away.  I’m disappointed that I did not love it more considering that it has so many elements I love but it happens. 


Has anybody read this one and continued on to book two?  Is it worth continuing?

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend - Susan Orlean Format: Audio (cds from library)
Narrated By: Susan Orlean
Original Publication Year: 2007
Genre(s): Nonfiction, Memoir
Series: N/A
Awards: None

Rin Tin Tin was popular well before my time and the only thing I really knew about him was the name and that he was a German Shepherd. Ignorance was actually a nice way to enter this book about his “life and legend” but I was curious how Susan Orlean was going to fill up over 300 pages.

Turns out there is no problem filling up the pages as this is not just Rin Tin Tin’s story but also the story of the early years of Hollywood and television, and of how a dog came to represent so much for so many people including Susan Orlean. It’s well-researched and is obviously a labor of love and perhaps a little bit of fixation. It goes beyond the mundane facts of what is a very interesting story and examines the why of Rin Tin Tin’s iconic status and tries to dissect what drove the people connected with him.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book for me were the examination of how the nature of our relationship with dogs changed between the early and mid part of the century. Dogs went from working tools and transitioned into companions. Which made the fact that many families donated their pet dog to the war effort in World War II, (or perhaps more accurately loaned their dogs to the military) that much more fascinating.

One slight criticism is that I think having Susan Orlean read her book wasn’t a great choice. It works for certain authors, primarily humorous ones like Tina Fey, Bill Bryson, or David Sedaris, but Susan has a relatively monotone voice and her reading is mostly expressionless. I got used to it and it didn’t bother me that much but a better reader might have really made the book come alive.

Overall it was a good reading experience and I’m glad to have made Rinty’s acquaintance!
The Sweet Far Thing - Libba Bray Format: Audio (downloaded from Library)
Narrated By: Josephine Bailey
Original Publication Year: 2007
Genre(s): YA Fantasy, Historical
Series: Gemma Doyle, # 3
Awards: None

I found book three of the Gemma Doyle series long, rambling and frequently annoying but in the end, I am glad, barely, that I saw the series through to its end. This was a rough series because it started so brilliantly and, in my opinion, decreased in quality through book two and three.

The idea and themes of the series and the imagination used to portray them are really wonderful. It’s about girls in the Victorian Period, corseted and ignored but for their role as wives and mothers. What if one of these girls was to inherit great magical power that she completely controlled and allowed her and her equally repressed friends to experience a world of freedom and adventure? Where would this power lead them and how would they choose to use it? The exploration of these ideas alone is enough to make the series worthwhile and I think Bray deals with the theme of women’s lib extremely well.

So I wish there wasn’t so much that frustrated me about this book. It’s too long and the story rambles without much conviction. The characters also lack conviction and seem to change in unnatural ways depending on how the plot needs them to be. I was riddled with questions while reading: Does Felicity have the worst judgment ever known to human kind and why do Gemma and Ann continue to trust her and remain her friends? Seriously, Felicity and Ann and Pippa for that matter are the worst friends EVER. Who exactly are the Rakshana? They make no sense. Why have they all the sudden decided to be Evil with a capital E. The only real reason given seems to be “they’re men” but…umm…they’ve always been men…why has every last one of the members decided now to abandon their original mission and just go all out for the power hungry, pick on the weaker sex M.O. a.k.a. screw chivalry? Why did Gemma never trust McCreevey? She trusted her mother’s killer, even after she KNEW it was her mother’s killer, more than McCreevey. Was it just because one had a kindly mothering demeanor and the other did not? Really? A book sparking questions can be a really great thing but it should be about ideas and not sloppy characterizations and storytelling. Basically you give anything in this book a good think and it falls apart. Don’t get me wrong; that can actually work okay but the reader has to be caught up in the story intensely enough to miss those weak elements and unfortunately they out competed the story for me.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what has been increasingly bothersome about Gemma and the other characters. Part of it is that while Gemma seemed to learn something at the ends of book 1 and 2 by book 3 she seems to have none of the benefit from those lessons. This lack of character growth feels like a lazy way to keep the plot afloat and drag it out. Also, even when Gemma was doing selfish stupid things and bending to the very bad judgment of her friends I could have accepted it if we had at least been allowed to see her inner dialogue indicating that her moral compass was dinging in alarm. We certainly see inside her head plenty but at crucial moments she does not question or examine. I’d have invested in her moral dilemmas a bit more if I could actually perceive that one existed.

I’m sorry to be so harsh and I think my real frustration with the book was that it had such a good beginning and such a good premise but for me it just fell apart. At the end of book one there is a lovely humorous monologue by Libba Bray on her day to day experiences writing the first book. One of the things she brings up is trying to outline and it just not working and I respect that – everyone has their style and their way. But I think not having a clear plan and vision may have hurt this series overall or at the very least it developed in ways that did not jive with my style and my way. There is so much I admire here and if your good at just rolling with the flow you may very well enjoy it far more than I did.
Rebel Angels - Libba Bray Format: Audio (Electronic from Library)
Narrated By: Josephine Bailey
Original Publication Year: 2006
Genre(s): Young Adult, Fantasy, Historical
Series: Gemma Doyle Trilogy # 2
Awards: None

Rebel Angels continues the story of Gemma Doyle and her quest to free herself and her friends from the bonds of authority and society’s strictures. Most of the action in this second volume of the series takes place over the Christmas holiday while Gemma, Felicity and Ann are in London. Gemma’s (and really all the girl’s) family problems are more front and center and complicate Gemma’s decision making. The book centers on a quest – to find “the temple” – and the book is filled with vague riddles meant to be clues that VERY slowly lead Gemma to her destination.

As I feared, this book was not nearly as good as book one. I still enjoyed it for the most part but there was a lot more eye-rolling. The main problem is that the narrative is much more forced. Without the need to set up the characters, relationships and the setting, which I think made the first book work so well, the book must be much more plot driven and it is done quite lazily. This is exacerbated by the fact that it is almost 150 pages longer then book one when it could have been easily shorter. By forced narrative I mean that the author has mutated their character(s) in an unnatural way to make the plot work. Frequently this means making them dumb and when it is not the first time I’ve met the character it is especially glaring. There are a lot of “mysteries” which I figured out about 200 pages before Gemma and Gemma, inexplicably, begins to rely much more heavily on her “friends” very faulty judgment and ignores the only non-biased advice she gets, i.e. “Trust No One”. The Order’s approach to Gemma doesn’t make a lot of sense and the Rakshana have turned from what might have been an interesting murky organization into straight up mustache-twirling villains who like to kill young girls. There was also a lack of continuity with book one. Why did Gemma’s mother instruct that Gemma be sent to Spence Academy if something happened to her when that seems to be the place at which her enemies could mostly easily find her and influence her? One of the characters from book one turns out to not be what they seemed and by doing so makes much of their actions in book one nonsensical. It all seemed very sloppy to me.

The biggest problem however is that the characters begin to morph into flat and unlikeable girls. As I mentioned much of Gemma’s likeability is sacrificed to make the story work. Gemma’s “friends” are no longer believable as her friends. While Gemma may have gained some wisdom from the happenings in Book 1, her friends have not and if anything seem even more intent on their own agendas and in using Gemma to get what they want. They do this blatantly and also blame Gemma for everything that goes wrong even though they share very much if not more in the blame. Despite this Gemma seems totally reliant on them, will not enter the realms without them and abandons her own good judgment and instincts to bend to their poor judgment. This ends up helping to significantly undermine Gemma as a character. Anne and Felicity are no longer complex and interesting – they are just horrible. I hope book three sees Gemma starting to rely on herself more and Anne and Felicity finally growing up but I don’t hold out much hope. It also looks like the lack of plotting discipline will continue as book three is a whopping 250 pages longer than book two.

With all that griping why would I continue to book 3? Because book one was so good, that I need to see it through to the end. And I am probably much harsher on this book then it deserves, mostly, because I came to expect something based on book one that is not carried through in this sequel.

Final Verdict: Disappointing but still a moderately engaging read.
A Great and Terrible Beauty - Libba Bray I became acquainted with Libba Bray earlier this year when, after encountering many gushing reviews, I read her most recent book “The Diviners”. I had a very conflicted reaction to this book -loved the story and setting and the horror elements; hated pretty much all of the characters particularly the main female lead. I was left curious to see what the author would do with a different series and her Gemma Doyle trilogy looked to be right up my alley interest-wise. Hence, I picked up “A Great and Terrible Beauty”, (first in the Gemma Doyle Trilogy) but I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect and was worried that it would have some of the same character issues of the Diviners.

Lo and Behold I was pleasantly astonished at how wonderful this book was. Gemma Doyle is a 17 year Victorian Era girl living in India when her mother is (essentially) murdered. The family uproots and heads back to their native England and Gemma’s grief-stricken Father quickly packs her off to a boarding finishing school for girls called Spence Academy. Gemma struggles with her grief and guilt over her mother’s death while she tries to fit into what for her is a foreign environment. And then there are the visions to deal with…

The setting and story is deliciously gothic and revolves around secret societies and school girls with magical power they are ill-equipped to deal with. At its best this is a coming of age tale and the story does an excellent job portraying the allure of the Realms to girls with no power over their lives in a restrictive, male dominated and class driven society. The Realms are an obvious representation of freedom and independence and it is no wonder Gemma’s bullying friend Felicity is the one most powerfully addicted to the Realms as she is the girl who longs for control and power the most.

The friendship that springs up between the four girls, Gemma, Ann, Pippa and Felicity, seems unlikely at first but Bray takes her time and makes it work brilliantly. The friendship between them, binding but fickle and always shifting is a quite realistic depiction of the relationships between young girls. And there are consequences to the girl’s immaturity and bad judgment which I think sometimes is sadly lacking in YA books and which drives me CRAZY. Gemma ignores her Mother’s warnings and as a result consequences are had, lessons are learned and some growing up actually occurs. I am concerned that this will not carry into book two but for now I’m pleased with how Bray has handled her characters.

The narrator of the audio book is generally very good but is one thing that bothered me - the voice for Anne. She is read with a “lower class” British accent which having been brought up in the academy I don't she'd have, scholarship student or not. I’m sure this was done deliberately to accentuate her status (or lack thereof) but despite being a little thing, it continually niggled.
I Am Half-Sick of Shadows - Alan Bradley Format: Audio (CDs from Library)
Narrated By: Jayne Entwistle
Original Publication Year: 2011
Genre(s): Mystery, Historical
Series: Flavia DeLuce # 4
Awards: None

Christmas comes to Buckshaw and Flavia, as usual, is determined to celebrate it with a bang (homemade fireworks) and some bird lime on the roof to catch Old St. Nick. And also as usual she ends up interfering in a police investigation and almost gets herself killed but no one bothers to chastise her for this.

Along with Christmas, a movie production, crew and cast, have taken over Buckshaw including the very famous actress Phyllis Wyvern (Sp??). There is a LOT of filler in this one and it takes almost half the book for the real action to get rolling. This is like one of those “flashback” episodes in a season of television to catch up new viewers and give the actors a week off. Almost every character and happening in the previous books is recapped. But eventually a dead body is found (by Flavia of course) when the house is particularly full because half of the village of Bishop's Lacey has been stranded at Buckshaw during a massive blizzard. There are suspects galore and much squirelly behavior to dissect which Flavia does with glee.

And immunity. This book was particularly egregious for letting Flavia get away with some things that really make me gnash my teeth. She is nearly killed at the end of the book (with no one having a clue what she is up to) and she gets not a single word of chastisement at the end. Not a single adult resolves to keep a better eye on her. It’s a problem I’ve had with the other books as well and I KNOW it’s a convention of this series so I should just get over it but I really wanted to, in particular, slap her father around a bit. There are developments toward explaining the nature of Flavia’s family but the frustration I feel at her families unconcern does cut into my enjoyment of the books.

I want to give the book two stars for the amount of filler and the loose ends untied and the fact that none of Flavia’s elders seem the least bit concerned for her. I’m giving it three though because the fact is, despite all its flaws I still enjoyed it. Flavia is a unique, sometimes annoying, but always fascinating character to spend time with and Bradley’s writing style and his ability to turn a phrase are just impossible to resist. I do also like how he is VERY slowly spooling out little pieces to Flavia’s own personal puzzle which has shaped her family into the dysfunctional unit it is.

I’ve listened rather than read almost all of the Flavia DeLuce books and I have to say Jayne Entwistle is one of those perfect castings - She IS Flavia. She sounds believably 11 and her reading, (the inflections, the emphasis) of Flavia’s lines are perfect. She really brings Flavia to life.