Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Spellhaven by Sandra Unerman (2017)

Unerman's prose is a delight to read. This first novel shows great promise for future works. It also shows a few typical weaknesses of first books. The plot is not quite as tight as I might like, characters not fully developed, and the ending somewhat disappointing (it seemed almost as if Unerman was having trouble finding a resolution so she just stopped). The main character, Jane Fairchild, is compelled by a magician, Lucian Hunter, to walk to the magically protected island Spellhaven. He selects her based on her musical gifts. Magicians from Spellhaven travel the world to find gifted artists to fill Spellhaven's needs. Much of the plot of the book is a detailing of the history of Spellhaven and its genesis. The other plot elements are the attempts by various magicians and their families to obtain Jane's services and use her gifts for their entertainments. There is also a larger plot pulling all together but in the interest of avoiding "spoilers" I'll leave that to readers.

The book is enjoyable, but ultimately a bit unsatisfying. I'm not certain whether the book should have actually been an trilogy so that Unerman had time to develop the characters more fully or if it simply need more ruthless editing to reduce the lush details about Spellhaven and focus more on plot and character.

I hope Unerman continues to keep writing. She is clearly talented.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Proving Ground, by Peter Blouner

Using a traumatized Middle Eastern War veteran as a main character,  Blauner goes just a little over the top with including too many "hot topics" in one novel.  A story of betrayals, drug trade, murder, and PTSD the story is obscured a bit by a little too much "screen writing."  Blauner left a successful career as a novelist to work in television as a producer/writer for both Blue Bloods and Law and OrderHis credentials for understanding crime, particularly drug related crime, are impressive.  As a journalist for New York Magazine and several smaller newspapers he decided to expand his background experience and worked as volunteer probation officer.  I think we can assume that he writes with some authority on these topics. 

The story of a Vet returning to the States and dealing with some well-deserved PTSD is timely.  I know that we have been "protected" from really understanding the challenges our service people and veterans of this particular war are facing.  Blauner's portrayal of PTSD was convincing and I expect probably well researched.  I could have done with one or two fewer plot twists.  I hope that now that Blauner is returning to print that he will focus the next book a little more carefully.

I'm not accustomed to reading novels so thoroughly influenced by screenwriting traditions.  As a reader I was challenged to appreciate some of the nuances of this style.  Particularly some of the dialect work caused me to reread some passages. 

I will however, keep an eye out for the next book.  I'd like to find out what the main character, Natty, does next.  This one of Nancy Pearl's summer reading suggestions gets a "thumbs up" from me.

The Defectors" by Joseph Kanon

I've been trying to widen my reading a bit.  Seems like I've been sort of stuck in fantasy and science fiction (also reading many of my "go to" detective fiction novels).  Nancy Pearl's (NPR) recommendations for summer reading sounded like a well advised plan so I began to work my way through them. 

The Defectors is, as promised, a "classic" 1950's spy novel.  I was a bit young to remember all the anxiety about Russian spying in the U.S. but certainly remember the Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis.  Thus, reading about the "insider's" view of Russian spy-craft was interesting.  I haven't really be reading any spy novels for a long time---not since Ian Flemming's James Bond books.  Generally I found it somewhat slow going.  The plot line is intended to keep tension tight by making it difficult to know where reality lies.  Indeed I felt the tense but did not find it particularly thrilling.  I had a little trouble following the plot because much of it was transacted through dialogue.  Kannon sometimes lost me...who was speaking.  It's rather classic period dialogue, just think James Bond.  However, it was somewhat frustrating for me to have to return and reread dialogue to untangle just who said what.

The visual images and history of Russia did however make this a worthwhile use of time.  Especially right now as we try to understand the Russian hacking and propaganda that appears to have influenced the 2016 presidential election.  If Kanon is correct about the expertise of the Russian intelligence services then we do indeed need to be worried. 

Friday, January 20, 2017

Cainsville and Age of Legends, Kelley Armstrong

Recently I’ve been tearing through Kelley Armstrong’s books, particularly her fantasy books from the Cainsville and The Age of Legends series.  Previously I’ve read her Nadia Stafford series which is detective series.  I am delighted with everything I’ve read so far.

Cainsville is set in Chicago and an "imaginary" nearby small town, Cainsville (don't go looking for it on a map).  Having spent more than half my life in the midwest it was a very comfortable regional read.  (Those of you following me on Facebook know that I'm starting off retirement with literary tours.)  The Olivia, th main character, suddenly discovers she is adopted and that her birth parents are in prison for multiple murders.  She becomes acquainted with her birth mother's last attorney, a notorious attorney who does what is needed to get his often shady clients off of charges.  

She ends up, accidentally, retreating to Cainsville.  There she takes a job in to local diner (up to this time her adopted family is wealthy and she has lived a committed life as an advocate for homeless and abused women).  There she finds what seems to be a safe and almost timeless community that supports her.  There are the usual small-town characters but overall it is an idyllic retreat from Chicago and the media that has been hounding her.  Here the fun begins.

Armstrong weaves a new view of the fae, the Hunt, and other mythical entities into a very modern setting.    There is a perhaps a bit more sex in the book than I would normally recommend.  It makes it a series that I think prevents it from being a book that teachers could recommend to even high school students.  (I must be getting really old!  I could easily take the sex out, leave the romance, and get on with the story.)

The four books in the series were all well crafted and enjoyable reads.  I think Armstrong has left a possibility for additional books in the series which I would read immediately.  Some critics have criticized the series for being "slow" to unfold the plot and setting.  I did not find this problematic.  As a reader who is exploring a range of mythologies I was not impatient.  My own knowledge filled in the details that Armstrong does not immediately provide.  

In The Age of Legends series Armstrong turns to a more traditional fantasy setting, a "medieval" village, an emperor, and magical/mythical threats.  Twin sisters Ashyn and Moira are the spiritual leaders of their village, the outpost to the wilds where convicts are sent to die, or survive.  If they survive the are recovered after a year having served their sentence.  This series is a young adult series and will capture the attention of many readers.  There is plenty of action (sword fights and evil forces) to keep the attention of male and female readers.  I suspect it will be much more popular with young women.  There is a strong male character, Gavril Kitsune, who will engage young men.  I hope that in the second book that Armstrong develops him further to make the series more attractive to male readers (but there are many books out for them so I won't be disturbed if she does not).  

What I particularly appreciate in this book is the limited knowledge of the main characters, Ashyn and Moira.  In the tradition of "unreliable narrators" Armstrong helps us feel the confusion and anger of young women as they come to terms with the adult realities of their worlds.

Neither series is elevated to "four star" status because they don't rise to "universal truths" but they come close.  Armstrong certainly deals with some the interpersonal tensions of adult life as well as issues of power, politics and "human" weakness. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Louise Penny's Canada-Tourism through the Lenses of the Inspector Gamache series

 [Notice:  This is a work in progress.  I will continue to add/refine.  I've just have a few requests to post as I go. I'll post a notice when it's final.]

If you've been reading my entries you probably know that I am a great fan of Louise Penny's novels.  As a result, for a number of years I've been hearing the call of Canada. I expect that many of her readers are from Canada, particularly the Quebec Province.  These readers have a distinct advantage.  They have a visual memory of the settings of her books.  I'm going to use this particular blog to share some of my "home photos" of the real locations of some of the land marks and settings of her novels.

I'm visiting during the early fall.  Fortunately I will not be showing frozen lakes or pine trees covered with snow.  If I've made mistakes as I selected places to photograph the error is mine alone.  In some cases a bit of a language problem may have led me to an incorrect location.

I'll begin in Montreal:

As a reader I really was drawn to the libraries.  I'm currently rereading The Nature of the Beast in which research in the national archives is an important element.  I hope I selected the correct library--"Grande Bibliotheque."  It appears as if there are national archive locations in many places throughout the country.  I had envisioned some grand old brick or stone building.  Instead is it very modern and uses yellow birch as the wood throughout.  It is a lovely contemporary building.  I did not take photos in the national archive section.  There is a guard going into the room and I was too self-conscious to take a lot shot in front of him.  (If I'm going to become a literary tourist I am going to have to become more bold!)

Musee de'Art Contemporain de Montreal

I think this was the museum in which Clara had her first show.  It seems right.  It's a little more "cold and modern" that I feel fits Clara and Peter.  But, I can see it being the setting of her successful first one-woman show.  I kept hoping to see a painting that might make me think of her work--but of course Clara is way ahead of the curve.  I was there as a new installation was going in.  It made me think more of Peter's work.Construction in the area made it impossible for me to see the statue out in front.  The entire city is being refreshed for its anniversary next year.  Construction everywhere.

Why I Read Science Fiction (and a few thoughts about politics and Zika)

Many of my friends/acquaintances wonder why I read science fiction.  From my perspective it is and always has been the literature of imagination.  In this posting I'm going to pull together some  previous posts and connect them to current events:  Zika virus and current politics. In previous posts I have reviewed Mira Grant's Newsflesh series.  Yes, it has zombies--but much more.  As I talk politics with my adult children I am alarmed by the increasing skepticism they have for commercial news outlets (also our political system in general!).  The parralles between the Newsflesh series with the current political theater and Zika virus is eerie. 

I don't want to spoil anything in the books so I'm going to talk around how closely Grant predicts the future in these books.  (I can also make much of the same case with Saci Lloyd's Carbon Diaries books.)  What I can discuss is why I think it's important for people to read these sorts of science fiction.  First of all it helps readers think through possible future scenarios and begin to plan their own actions in similar situations. As a result of my readings I am much more able to react rationally to "crises." Because authors like Grant and Lloyd are exploring possibilities, I have a frame work upon which I can structure my thinking.  I might be a tad bit more paranoid than some, but I remain rational.    I'm not a "prepper" by any means, but I do try to think of the possibilities in the future and prepare in ways that I judge reasonable. In the case of Zika this means staying out of Florida and other areas with the virus.  If I didn't have that luxury I would make sure I had good protection (I hate DEET repellents so I'd probably go for the clothing options as much as possible).  Based on Lloyd's work, and that of many author authors, I also have some "stock piles" of food and supplies that I might need in the case of a natural disaster or system failure.  Not two years worth--but at least some.  [As I compose this I had a horrible thought.  There are lots of "storage units" going up around me.  I have been appalled that Americans have so much stuff that their two car garages and McMansions don't hold it all.  Now it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps they are stockpiling resources instead. Hmmm]

Another area that science fiction writers often explore is that of politics. One of the things bothering me in this political season is the mass acceptance of political "cover-ups" (mostly magical thinking). I'm not certain what I might consider actually doing about the political/media fantasy we have going right now.  I'm in the awkward position that I want to believe we can have a working political system.  But, the realist in me makes me think that I'm being naive.  Unfortunately in all the "futures" science fiction I have been reading, there is no great answer for this problem.  It may be that the system is going to have to get much worse before the wider public can see through the smoke and mirrors that I am perceiving.  I have been persuaded that I need to dig deeper and read more widely.  Being informed as well as I can will at least help me feel confident that I can bring some real substance to the discussions of politics when they do occur.  I find myself increasingly using references to novels to help broaden out the thinking of those around me.  One of the skills I learned during a training about how to handle conflict was to avoid "theory" and simply report my own experiences.  Hopefully referencing some fiction that others might read will serve a similar purpose.

Now, just in case I haven't persuaded you that science fiction is a good reading option let me provide some evidence that you're not going to find it poorly written and simplistic.  Here's some evidence of the quality of the writing.  From Mira Grant's website:

 "Feed is a distopian political zombie thriller set in against the backdrop of a national political campaign. It was named #76 on NPR’s Top 100 Killer Thrillers List, and was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2010."  

In this year of another election, I think it's worth reading the series to have some grist for processing current events.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Fire Touched, by Patricia Briggs

I enjoy Brigg's books--all of them!   She writes a number of fantasy series and all are well written and engaging.  Yes there are werewolves and shape-changers as well as a variety of supernatural creatures and ancient gods!  But, the books have good narrative arcs and a number of well rounded characters.

But, I am embarrassed by the covers.  I actually found myself turning the book face-down in doctor's offices and coffee shops when I was not actually reading.  If you look at the covers you will probably expect a fantasy romance novel.  There is little if any "romance" other than the developing relationships between main characters--the normal romance found in most novels.

What do I like about these books?  Well, ancient gods always appeal to me!  I'm fascinated by our mythologies and the "character" of the gods, demi-gods, and other "divine" beings.  This series, along with the Iron Druid, Artemis Fowl, The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flammel, and Percy Jackson series as well as individual titles such as American Gods have pulled me into a wide range of mythologies.  Brigg's books are set in Southeastern Washington State (the tri-cities area) and thus also resonate with my northwestern US home.  Her details of the setting and region throughout this series may enhance your enjoyment of the books if you are familiar with the area.  If you are not, then they may encourage you to come visit!

It's a great summer read (and you can create a book cover to hide the cover image!).  In this case don't be fooled by the cover.