Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Duainfey and Longeye by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

It's no secret that I've been a fan of Sharon Lee and Steve Millers Liaden Universe space opera/Science Fiction novels for years--I am all over any of their novels of Korval, with the intricate characters, complex plots and amazing world-building that have become hallmarks of their work.

Because they have a huge following for anything Liaden, I was surprised when the duo announced that they were turning their hands to a high fantasy/romance for Baen Books.
Yet I was eager to read what style the couple would take with the book, and was again surprised when Duainfey turned dark and searing, not generally the kind of fantasy I expect from a middle aged married couple from Maine.

However, though I was uncomfortable with the horrific moments, I was riveted to the storyline by Lee and Millers fabulous characters, world building and labyrinthine plots (trust me, with them, it's a good thing to have a plot full of twists and turns--they never commit the sin of boring the reader).

Duainfey is mainly the story of Rebecca Beauvelley, a crippled noblewoman (she has a withered arm) and Meripen Vanglauf, also known as Longeye, a fey ranger who guards and protects the trees. Becca is faced with terrible choices as a young woman, to marry a cruel landowner or run away with a handsome Fey lord named Altimere, who presents her with an edited version of the future that shows her a life of beatings and domination or a life of pampered luxury with him. What Altimere doesn't tell her is that she is possessed of a great deal of "Kest" which is something like the Force that springs from the souls of those who are fey or quarter-fey mixed with newmen. Altimere enslaves Becca and uses her kest for his own nefarious dealings, including killing his rivals and having Becca service rivals and friends sexually. Becca manages, with the help of an herb called Duainfey and a few loyal friends, to break out of her enslavement, but almost dies in the process. Meanwhile, Meri Longeye is recovering from abuse and violence at the hands of people called "newmen" who are 'regular' people living beyond the barrier errected by the fey to protect themselves from the cold iron of progress and prejudice of non magical people. Longeye's lover is tortured and murdered in front of him when neither will reveal their 'secret' of making gold from thin air.

The sequel, Longeye, picks up as Meripen Longeye is recovering his kest and working with the newmen in a forest close to the barrier to figure out why there are trees appearing that are not alive, have no voices to speak to the rangers and seem to suck the life out of anyone or anything that encounters them.

Becca is also recovering from her ordeal, and has run away from Altimere's encampment with an artifact servant named Nancy and a quarter fey horse named Rosamunde. Because each has been tortured at the hand of the other's people/fey, Longeye and Becca are an unlikely couple. Yet through their love of trees and the green growing land, they bond to try and find the secret of the 'dead' trees and Altimere's plans for the barrier that sets their worlds apart. Romance eventually ensues, they entwine their kest and learn of one another via a mental bond that is unbreakable.

Though she's the protagonist, Becca came off, at times, as a bit of a ninny, stubborn and willful when she needs to review the situation and cooperate, and pliant/in need of rescue when she needs to be independent. She wasn't as stupid as Bella Swan,(of Twilight) thankfully, or I would never have made it through Duainfey, but she also wasn't as smart as the female protagonists of the Liaden Universe novels, who were able to take care of themselves and become heroines. I realize that the damsel in distress is part and parcel of the high fantasy/romance genre, still, I find the stereotype of the petite-yet-fiesty lady being rescued from her ignorance and problems by the tall and handsome-but-wounded manly woodsman a touch precious. This is not to say that I disliked Becca. I liked her, I just found her immature at times, though I was glad she and Longeye were able to vanquish the enemy and save the world.

Still, I enjoyed both Duainfey and Longeye, (the latter more than the former) and was pleasantly surprised that Lee and Miller were able to tie up all their loose ends so neatly and with logic. I also enjoyed the awakening that Becca and Meripen created in each other, and their ability to grow beyond their prejudice of the fey and newmen that had done them wrong. I wish a bit less time had been spent on Altimere in the barrier and his evil doings taking kest from everyone trapped there, etc. I really didn't feel the need to know about whatever calculations he used to try and bring down the barrier, but that's just me...I realize the mechanics of such things usually interest guys and, as Steve Miller co-wrote these books, he must have felt the need to add the scientific stuff, which is fine. It's just a place to skim over for me.
Anyway, other than those small nitpicks, I recommend Duainfey and Longeye to all those who love high fantasy/romances and who don't mind some darkness here and there to spice things up a bit.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Mistress of the Art of Death and The Serpent's Tale by Ariana Franklin

Now as to my latest fascination with a book series, I have to repeat that I am not normally a fan of the mystery genre, though I adore Sherlock Holmes and am a fan of Jacqueline Winspear's lovely Maisie Dobbs mysteries (set after the first world war), and of Brother Cadfael, Ellis Peter's fabulous Medieval sleuth, still I don't enjoy the Sister Fidelma mysteries, for example, or Agatha Christie, or PD James or even Dashiel Hammet. I have to have some Science Fiction/Fantasy or some paranormal abilities thrown in to keep me from yawning my way through any given whodunit, usually.

That said, I happened to see Mistress of the Art of Death at my local grocery store in a kiosk that was emblazoned with a 75 percent off logo, on already clearance priced books. So I grabbed what was the last hardbound copy of this novel and bought it for a song at $1.50.
I wasn't expecting to enjoy more than the beautifully-wrought cover, when I was surprised by the lush prose, the amazing protagonist and the gripping plot.
This mystery's sleuth, Adelia Aguliar, is a rare woman. She was orphaned at birth and raised by two doctors in Salerno, Italy, where she was given a thorough education in medicine and forensics, and trained to be a "reader of the dead" or what we would today call a medical examiner. Adelia is also possessed of a mind like Sherlock Holmes, an independent spirit, and a compassionate heart, in addition to tolerance for all races and religions, something that was not a given in the medieval era. Her second in command is a castrato (eunnich) Arabic black man named Mansur whom she uses as a 'beard' when she needs to tend to someone as a doctor, knowing that helping the sick isn't allowed of females, particularly unmarried females who aren't nuns.
In her first case, Adelia is called to England to find out who is killing/torturing children and crucifying their bodies before the town rises up and kills all the Jewish people who live there, as every time there is trouble, pogroms errupt and Jews are rounded up and murdered because people don't understand their religion and consider them "Christ killers." (never mind the fact that Jesus was Jewish, heaven forbid facts get in the way of ridiculous prejudice and ignorance)
Adelia examines the children and uncovers clues methodically until she finds, in a terrifying ending, who the murderers are, and saves the town's remaining Jewish population from death. Adelia is accused of witchcraft by an inquisition of the town church leaders and is saved by none other than the king of England, the brilliant Henry II, who is fleshed out here as more than the murderer of Thomas Beckett. Adelia meets Rowley Picot while ferretting out clues for the king, and falls in love with him as a kindred spirit.
The second book, The Serpents Tale, takes up a year after the mystery was solved, and finds Adelia dealing with a baby fathered by Rowley, who is now an archbishop and unable to marry Adelia, though she prefers not to wed and have to hide her brilliant mind and cease using her skills as a doctor to the dead. This time, King Henry's mistress Rosamund is murdered, and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine is suspected of poisoning her. It's up to Adelia, Mansur and Glythia, a fenswoman of a small English village (who basically stands in for Dr Watson with her common sense and straightforward personality)to find out who really killed Rosamund and why.
Though it wasn't quite as gory and romantic as the first novel, the Serpents Tale was just as well written and briskly plotted as its predecessor. I honestly couldn't put either book down once I'd started reading it, and was surprised by how rapidly I went through them.
Franklin is a crack storyteller, very adept at characterization and has plots that are swift and sure. I find myself being addicted to yet another fictional character, and I'm now jonesing for the next installment of the series, Grave Goods, which just came out in March of this year.
I highly recommend these engrossing reads for all those who love unusual, brilliant sleuths and well-written historical mysteries with a medical twist.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Stats on Who and What America is Reading

From Unshelved, the booksellers email newsletter, some stats on what is selling in the bookstores today:

First, from Jim King, senior v-p and general manager of Nielsen

* Over the past five years, sales of adult nonfiction were up overall
11.1% but declined in 2008. In adult nonfiction, travel was down 4.6%,
biography and autobiography rose 34.1% and business was up 19.4%.
* In biography, over the past five years, sales of personal memoirs rose
567%, travelers were up 516%, cultural heritage rose 175% and political
bios were up 56%.
* In the business category during the last five years, personal finance
rose 122%, economics and general business was up 351%, finance jumped
103% and investments and securities were up 117%.
* In the self-help category during the last five years, spiritual was up
224%, mood disorders rose 108%, general personal growth was up 183% and
motivational and inspirational titles rose 51%.
* Sales of adult fiction were up 8.9% during the past five years. In
that category, general fiction was up 23.3%, graphic novels rose 52.7%,
mystery and detective titles were down 12.7%, literary fiction rose
86.1%, historical fiction was up 24.1% and political fiction was up
* In the first quarter this year, adult nonfiction sales were down 8%.
Within that category, cooking was up 4.8%, humor rose 8.9%, travel fell
18.7%, business and economics were down 10.1% and
biography/autobiography rose 7.5%.
* Fiction has been "pretty much flat" during the first quarter. General
fiction was down 3.4%, romance has risen 1.5%, mystery/detective was
down 19.8%.
* Children's book sales were up almost 9% in the quarter. ("Stephenie
Meyer is still driving children's.") Children's fiction was up 10.4%,
and children's nonfiction was up 2.5%.

Then from Kelly Gallagher, v-p of publishing services at R.R. Bowker,
who focused on information about customers:

* The average book reader last year was 45 years old. Some 65% of buyers
are women, who tend to buy in higher volumes than women.
* Of all Americans 13 or older, 50% bought a book last year. The average
age of the most frequent book buyer is in the 50s.
* The average price paid for a book last year was $10.08.
* Unit sales for the year to date are down just 1.2%.
* 31% of all books purchased last year were impulse purchases, and 28%
of purchases involved readers planning to buy a book but not knowing
what they wanted. Thus more than 50% of book buys are impulse purchases.
* 41% of people earning more than $100,000 a year buy comics and graphic
* 41% of all books purchased are bought by people earning less than
$35,000, and most people in the U.S. earn less than $35,000.
* The average book reader now spend 15 hours a week online, more than
for TV, providing "opportunities to provide information to them online."

* In the trade, digital book sales grew 125% last year and represent
1.5% of the trade. Seniors are "leading the way" in the purchase of
e-books. Digital book purchases by those 64 and over rose 183% last
year. Seniors are also the largest users of Kindles.
* 48% of e-books are still being read on computers. Kindles have a 22%
market share; the iPhone has 20% of the market "with less than a year of
having a good e-book app."
* Last year for the first time online became the "No. 1 selling
channel," and accounted for 21% of sales.
* "The younger crowd are larger supporters of large chain bookstores."
* Book clubs are still significant sales channels for reaching older
* The fiction market is predominantly female. The one area of fiction in
which men predominate is science fiction, where 55% of buyers are male.
* Stephen King's audience is "middle market." Sue Grafton appeals to an
older, low income audience. Stephenie Meyer appeals mostly to younger,
higher-income readers.
* 67% of book buyers who were influenced by book reviews read them
online, and 32% did so in print. Overall online ads were the "first
level" of book awareness in 2008--54.1% of buyers of a book became aware
of the book through online ads, including banner ads, Google ads and
publishers' websites. (And likely e-mail newsletters, too!)

And finally Dave Thompson, v-p and director of sales analysis at Random
House, offered some more information about trends in the market:

* Direct mail catalogues continue to be very important for Harlequin in
introducing readers to books, and the publisher has done an excellent
job converting book club members and subscribers from catalogues to the
* Readers first hear about books most often from "store displays"
(44.4%). The second-biggest "awareness driver" already is online
(including online ads and e-mails from retailers).
* Kroger's book of the month program has been very successful.
* Target has a far higher number of female buyers than Barnes & Noble.
* Some 60% of mass market books are bought by people who earn less than
$50,000 a year.
* At Costco, some 33% of buyers of adult books earn less than $50,000 a
* In grocery stores, 75% of book buyers are women and 83% of the
purchases are impulse purchases and 83% of books sold are fiction--all
the same demographics for mass market books.