Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Storm Front

Jim Butcher
Completed 6/18/2016, reviewed 6/21/2016
4 stars

“Storm Front” is the first of The Dresden Files books.  I had been meaning to read some of these books for a long time, but never quite got around to it.  Now it’s the October selection for Book Club.  I didn’t mean to read it so early, it’s just that I was house sitting for my mother-in-law, she had the book on mp3, an mp3 player, and I wasn’t into reading anything else I had brought with me.  It turned out to be a fantastic experience.  First of all, it’s easier to listen to a book when you’re doing something other than driving.  Secondly, the book lived up to all the hype that I’d heard. 

Harry Dresden is a wizard-for-hire in Chicago.  He’s called by the police to investigate a murder with black magic written all over it.   Shortly after, he takes a private missing persons case because, well, he needs the money.  He may be a wizard, but he’s not exactly rich.  While trying to solve these two cases, Harry finds out that his life is also in mortal danger.  A dark, gritty, noir novel, with lots of tongue in cheek humor, this is perhaps the first urban fantasy that I really enjoyed. 

While I enjoyed the book itself, the experience was amazingly enhanced by the narrator, James Marsters of Buffy fame.  He read it like the narrator of a 1940s black and white Bogie movie.  Written in first person, Marsters drew me into Dresden’s personality and kept me locked into the world that Butcher created.  I particularly liked the breath-work.  Marsters sighs a lot as he’s reading Dresden, adding an extra dimension to the character. 

One of the most fun parts of the book is Bob the skull.  He’s a spirit that lives in a skull in Dresden’s sub-basement laboratory.  He’s been around for hundreds of years.  Bob helps Dresden with making potions and other magical activities.  Marsters reads him rather foppishly, making all the interactions with him quite humorous.   There’s also a faerie named Toot-Toot who helps Dresden, although the scene with him is rather short.  I expect Toot-Toot shows up more in later novels as I understand the fae aspect grows in importance as the series progresses.

The book is not particularly deep or profound, just terribly fun.  As soon as I was done, I wanted to listen to more.  I give this book four out of five stars.  I give James Marsters’ performance five stars.  I’m sure reading the book is great, but listening to this performance was a tremendous experience. 

Friday, June 24, 2016


Naomi Novik
Completed 6/12/2016, reviewed 6/20/2016
4 stars

“Uprooted” is a marvelous twist on the tales of the magic forest.  There are good forests and bad forests.  Here, it’s The Wood that harbors evil, is full of monsters, and seems to have a malevolent spirit all its own.  The only power that protects the townspeople from this evil is the wizard known as the Dragon.  In exchange for his protection, he takes one young woman from the town every ten years.  “Uprooted” is the story of one such woman, Agnieszka, and her journey of coming into herself and her own powers.  It’s full of action and suspense and is a fun read.

The story is told from the first person perspective of Agnieszka.  Being the narrator, her character is the best developed.  She’s young, naïve, and stubborn.  She first thinks she’s the captive of the Dragon, but slowly realizes she’s his apprentice, that she was chosen because of her budding magical abilities which even she didn’t know she had.  As she develops, she realizes she has a much more organic approach to magic, as opposed to the more academic style of the Dragon.  It makes for tense and sometimes humorous moments with him. 

I’ve read some reviews that claim that Agnieszka is a Mary Sue.  As I read through the criticisms and the descriptions of what a Mary Sue is, I can see that somewhat.  A Mary Sue is a young or low-rank person who saves the day with unrealistic abilities (thanks Wikipedia).  But I think Agnieszka is a little more complex than that.  She’s not the pretty little ingénue.  In fact, her best friend is, but the story revolves around Agnieszka anyway.  She struggles with everything and everyone around her, and she’s not always right. 

Besides the fact that this book is the July selection for my book club, what drew me to it was that the author’s inspiration was Polish fairy tales and the Baba Yaga myth.  Soooo, I don’t know any Polish tales, but I am a little familiar with Baba Yaga.  She appears in the form of a journal of magic spells that Agnieszka finds.  And the story basically takes place in a variant of Poland and the characters all have Polish names.  The one thing that perturbed me a little, though, was that sometimes the author transliterated the characters' names, like using the letter V, which is a W in Polish, or using Stashek instead of Stasiek or Staszek (the diminutive for Stanley).  Well, you can’t have everything.

A special mention needs to be made of the Wood.  The author imagined quite a wondrously malevolent forest that is not just full of evil things, but is evil itself.  It is basically a character unto itself.  I haven’t read anything else by Novik, but I think it speaks to her world-building ability. 

I give the book four stars out of five.  It’s a well-written fantasy with a strong heroine in an imaginative universe.  It’s a lot of fun and some of the sequences were intense page turners.  The only reason I did not give it five stars was because I thought it lost a little steam in the end.  It was complicated, almost esoteric.  But in all honesty, I had several things come up in my personal life with less than fifty pages to go which made it difficult for me to concentrate on the ending.  I had to read it twice to make sure I understood it, and I lost my emotional involvement with it.  It was still well worth the read and I look forward to the discussion of it in book club.   

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Tower of Swallows

Andrzej Sapkowski
Completed 6/5/2016, reviewed 6/7/2016
4 stars

This is the fourth book of the Witcher Saga, and the seventh book of the Witcher series.  Unlike the other books, the prose and form of this book are wondrous.  It felt like Sapkowski finally honed his writing ability and came up with a much more mature storytelling style.  It created a tone that is much more serious and less straight-forward swashbuckling adventure, lending a gravity to the plot which wasn’t as evident in the previous books.

The form that Sapkowski uses is to have multiple narrators telling the story.  The perspective changes depending on the narrator.  But the narration isn’t told in big blocks.  It bounces back and forth between the perspectives to pull all the different emotions and tensions out of the story.  It doesn’t rely on a single third person omniscient thread.  Rather it makes a linear story out of multiple threads.  The result is a much more powerfully developed universe that the previous books only hinted at.  One could argue that the universe of the Witcher was already well developed by the scope of the saga.  However, I feel that this book fleshed it out in a piece of fine literature.

Be aware that giving a plot summary here is a spoiler if you haven’t read the previous novels.  As usual, I’ll keep it brief so that it doesn’t give away too much. 

The story continues with the Witcher searching for his ward, the apprentice witcher/sorceress Ciri.  Up to this point, she has been escaping capture by the hordes of bad guys who have been after her.  In this installment, she finally succumbs to a powerful bounty hunter.  The main plot of this book is the telling of how she gets captured and plight after that, while the witcher and his company traverse dangerous roads in their search for her.

The story is also much more adult, in that Ciri has a relationship with another young woman in the ragtag group of outlaws she had fallen in with in the last book.  It’s handled really well, not going into a lot of detail, but allowing it to have a profound affect on her.  This makes up for Sapkowski’s use of the word “sodomites” which made me bristle when he plopped it into the first book. 

I again give this book four out of five stars.  This time, it’s not because it’s as fun to read.  It’s not.  It’s because it is much more serious in tone and mature in style.  It should be noted that this book has a different translator which may have had an influence on the word and phrase choices.  Overall, I feel this is the strongest of the books, except perhaps for the “The Last Wish” which introduced the Witcher in a series of short stories.  

Friday, June 17, 2016

Heart-Shaped Box

Joe Hill
Completed 6/1/2016, reviewed 6/1/2016
3 stars

Most people recognize heart-shaped boxes from candy packaging.  In this book, the box is big and contains the suit of a dead man, and his ghost.  Judas Coyne buys this suit because he collects souvenirs of the macabre.  What could be more tantalizing than buying a ghost?  Unfortunately, the ghost is real and wants to murder Jude and anyone who tries to help him.  Although I had trouble with the first third of the story, the suspense stayed tight throughout the rest and had a pretty pleasing horror novel experience.

Don’t let the name of the main character make you groan.  Judas Coyne is a death metal rock star who changed his name to cut himself off from his past.  He left his real name behind to disassociate himself from his abusive father.  Since his divorce, he’s had a string of young girlfriends, even though he’s now 54 years old.  Despite the predilection towards younger women and things macabre, he is actually a decent character, much more relatable than I thought he’d be. 

I should explain my comment about the first third of the book.  I was initially turned off by the book because a lot happens in the beginning, including the appearance of the ghost.  This made it seem that Hill was playing all his cards up front in the first section, pulling out all the stops.  When the first section was done, I couldn’t figure out how he could keep the story at such a high level of suspense for the rest of the book.  Fortunately, he didn’t have to.  The plot after the revelation of the ghost kept my interest.  This was a surprise because I didn’t feel like his writing was that strong.  And it really isn’t that great, but it was good enough to keep me reading. 

Despite the adequate prose, I have to say that Hill was very good at describing the creepy supernatural stuff that occurs towards the end of the book.  No spoilers here.  I just wanted to note that it was good, strong imagery.  It would be easily translatable into  good special effects in a movie.

I give the book three stars out of five.  It’s a decent horror novel with enough creepiness to give me the willies, particularly in that first third.  I should note too that Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son.  It’s been a long time since I’ve read any King, but I felt that Hill was writing with his own style, not trying to emulate his father, or at least not emulating how King wrote up through the mid-nineties.  I don’t know if Hill will attain a level of stardom like his father, but he’s a good enough story teller that I’m interested in reading more of him.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Last Wish

Andrzej Sapkowski
Completed 5/30/2016, reviewed 6/1/2016
4 stars

I’m totally out of order reading the Witcher series.  Having read Books 3, 4, and 5, I’ve now read the first book.  It was the first to be published in Poland as well as here.  Fortunately, the first book is a collection of stories about the Witcher that act as a prequel, or at least sets up the background for the Saga that begins in Book 3.  It introduces Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher, taking a break to recover from injuries in the Temple of Melitere.  As he heals, he tells several stories of his monster fighting career.  It’s the sort of swashbuckling fun that this series is known for, and which inspired the immensely popular video games based on the books.

Being a collection of stories, I must point out my favorites.  The very first story is great.  It is the explains the nature of the Witcher and what he does best, fighting monsters.  I also liked the last story, where he meets the lovely, scary, and snarky sorceress Yennifer, who plays a big role in the Saga.  With her, he must defeat a powerful djinn before he destroys a whole town.  In another, we first meet his sometimes travelling companion Dandelion, a poet, troubadour, and storyteller whose mouth gets them into loads of trouble.  There’s also a story which is a sort of deconstruction of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Most importantly, the book introduces us to the background story from which the Saga which begins with Book 3 generates.  It tells the story of a Geralt dealing with the monster who comes to claim as his bride the daughter of the Queen of Calanthe.  This union is what spawns the sorcersess/witcher prodigy Ciri, who becomes the main character and source of all conflict in the Saga. 

Like the Saga itself, this book is a fun, easy read.  It focuses more on Geralt and monsters, which is what I had been craving through the Saga.  Again, I give this book four stars out of five because it is so fun.  It’s not great literature, but it’s a dark, high fantasy with snarky humor and swashbuckling action.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Salt Roads

Nalo Hopkinson
Completed 5/28/2016, reviewed 6/1/2016
4 stars

Nalo Hopkinson is fast becoming one of my favorite writers.  I’ve only read one other book of hers, “Brown Girl in the Ring”, but that was a fantastic book.  This one is also good, and large in scope considering it’s a rather short book, under four hundred pages.  It encompasses the lives of three women in three different times in history, 1700s Haiti before the slave uprising, 1800s Paris, and fourth century Jerusalem.  Their lives are intertwined by the actions of a goddess who influences their life choices.

All three main characters are incredible.  First there’s the slave woman who is the midwife and healer for the other slaves on her plantation.  She is the elder, and bears the responsibility for keeping the old ways.  Second, there’s Jeanne Duval, a mixed race Haitian dancer and actress in Paris.  She is the lover of a famous French poet.  The character is a fictionalized version of an actual historical person.  The third is the Egyptian prostitute and slave Meritet who goes on an adventure to what was Jerusalem after its fall and becomes St. Mary of Egypt.  Hopkinson creates three very vivid characters with lots of life who traverse intense difficulty to find resolution in their lives. 

Needless to say, a major theme of the novel is slavery, but it also discusses racism and sexuality.  It has a lot to say about same and opposite sex relationships, as well as interracial relationships and mixed race persons.  The brilliance of Hopkinson I think is that she can bring all this discussion into her characters while still maintaining awesome prose and plot. 

The one tough spot for me was the story line of the goddess Ezili.  It took me most of the book to really get into her sections.  I found the prose in her sections very difficult to absorb, particularly at the beginning.  It became a little easier to follow once I understood how she was taking possession of the characters. 

The narrative is a little non-traditional.  It bounces between first and third person and between the three main characters and the goddess.  Except for the aforementioned story line of Ezili, I didn’t have any trouble with it.

I give the book four stars out of five.  I took off one star for the Ezili narrative.  It prevented me from feeling total connection with the book.  However, that shouldn’t prevent one from reading the book.  The plots of the three women are completely absorbing, leaving you hoping for happy endings for their extremely difficult lives.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

Lois McMaster Bujold
Completed 5/26/2016, reviewed 5/27/2016
3 stars

This is the sixteenth book in the Vorkosigan Saga, though this is only the fourth book in the Saga that I’ve read.  Fortunately, the books I did read gave me enough background for the character study that is this story.  It’s a touching novel of two people who find love again late in life.  It’s very different from the enormous space opera that this saga is.  The romance takes place in the foreground while the political intrigue is in the background.  Not being a huge fan of space opera, I did enjoy the book, but found it a little boring in patches. 

The love story of this novel is what makes the book so interesting.  The background is that Cordelia Vorkosigan, the Vicereine of the planet Sergyar, was married to the powerful Admiral Aral, who was also a prime minister and Viceroy.  Aral had a relationship with Oliver Jole, now an admiral himself.  Both Aral and Oliver were bisexual.  Aral has died, and now three years later, Oliver and Cordelia find love and comfort in each other.  In addition, Cordelia and Oliver have decided to have children by Aral using his frozen gametes.  The drama in the story unfolds in how the couple releases this information to the public and to Cordelia and Aral’s son, the main character of the saga, Miles.

The intricacies of this three-way relationship are the best part of the novel.  The book explores how Cordelia, Aral, and Oliver handled the original relationship while Cordelia and Oliver explore this new one.  It creates an understanding of bisexuality and how a non-traditional relationship may work.  The book is also profound in its handling of a new relationship between two older adults, past what normally would be considered marrying age.  It’s very touching, and I found myself rooting for them throughout the book. 

There is some great humor in the book as well.  The scene where they break the news to Miles made me chuckle out loud.  Also, while the romance is still a secret, Cordelia and Oliver’s getaways to an isolated lake don’t create rumors of the relationship, but rather conspiracy theories about the lake. 

The only aspect of the book that was problematic for me was that the release of the information about their relationship was basically the only drama in the book.  There were other scenes that carried some subplots of political intrigue, but they just weren’t all that interesting.  I felt like I had to wade through it to get back to the story of the relationship.  I found it to be quite boring, ruining the flow of the main plot.  It was as if Bujold had a great idea but had a hard time keeping it in the context of her universe. 

I give this book three stars out of five.  It’s good, but lacked the oomph to keep me from feeling intermittently bored throughout it.  

Friday, June 3, 2016

Baptism of Fire

Andrzej Sapkowski
Completed 5/20/2016, reviewed 5/20/2016
4 stars

The third book in “The Witcher” series continues the dark fantasy fun of its predecessors.  I thought this was a trilogy, but now it seems the saga is five books, not including the two prequels.  The fourth book is just making its way to my library, and I think I’m the first to place a hold for it.  I was a little disappointed to find that the story did not end here, but the series is just so entertaining that the disappointment didn’t last.  My only regret is that with the books being published annually, I won’t get to the grand finale until next year. 

In this installment, the focus is much more on the Witcher himself, Geralt.  He’s seriously wounded at the end of the last book and has to recover in the magical forest of the dryads.  There he meets a woman named Milva who’s an incredible archer.  Once he’s recovered, she joins him on his journey to save Ciri.  Eventually, the twosome meets up with the a few others to form a fellowship on the quest.  Geralt does this reluctantly as he is a lone wolf, but eventually comes to see that it might just be better to have some help on the way.

There’s more war as well as a coming together of the major sorceresses of the nations.  The conclave is in response to the war and to the coup that took place in the last book.  The women decide that magic must survive and must take its place above the pettiness of nations.   Despite my usual complaint of there being too many characters, the scene works well and kept my attention.

It’s tough to come up with more analysis of this book as it is much the same as the previous two, and I expect I’ll have the same problem with the fourth book.  The one thing I really noticed though is that Sapkowski likes his bad-ass women.  Milva is probably the best archer in the land, and she doesn’t take crap from anyone.  And I was beginning to think that the sorceresses were a little to girly initially and that many of their scenes were a little soapy with too many references to, believe it or not, makeup.  But the conclave really drove home for me that Sapkowski created powerful women characters in this novel.  Considering these stories came out of 1980’s Poland, I find it quite remarkable, and very entertaining.

Another item worth mentioning is that Sapkowski introduces a vampire into the mix.  The timing for me was great, having just recently read “Carmilla”.  But this isn’t your run of the mill eastern European vampire.  This one is also a surgeon.  To go into more detail would be a spoiler, but suffice it to say, it makes for a fun read.

I continue to give the books in this series four stars out of five.  There are still times I think the writing, or at least the translation could be better, and the number of characters still makes my head spin, but it’s just so entertaining, I can’t put the books down.  I can see why they made a video game out of the series.