Sunday, September 19, 2010

Five Books

I've been on a tear these past two weeks, reading some books that have reeled me in and not let me go until the last page was read.
They are:
True Colors by Kristin Hannah
Maybe This Time by Jennifer Cruisie
Magic on the Storm by Devon Monk
An Irish Country Doctor by Patrick Taylor
Prayers for Sale by Sandra Dallas

I've read a couple of other books by Kristin Hannah, and she always puts me in mind of Jennie Shortridge, without as scrupulous an editor (Hannah's books usually have higher page counts than Shortridge). True Colors brought to mind another book I'd read about a horse-ranching family with a wayward daughter, but I can't for the life of me remember the title or the author. At any rate, True Colors is the story of the three Grey sisters, Winona the fat one with brains, Aurora the middle child, earth mama and peacemaker and Vivi Ann, the spoiled and selfish youngest child who is, of course, blonde, petite and pretty and gets all the fathers attention (as usual, the mother is long dead). Though I suspect we are meant to admire and connect with Vivi Ann, I found myself wishing that she'd get thrown off the family horse and die early on. She was willfully stupid and niave, a narcissist and a bratty little tramp who always gets whatever she wants, while the daughter who actually does the most for the family, Winona, gets consistently treated like crap by the father, who is a real horse's arse, right from the first chapter. Of course there are two men involved, the handsome jock who wants Vivi Ann but is beloved of Winona, and the hottie Native American Dallas, who fills Vivi Ann with lust but who is rejected by her father and everyone else in their small town, because most everyone is prejudiced, of course. In a move that you could see coming right from the moment Vivi Ann goes to bed with Dallas, the Native American is framed for murder and sent to prison, where he loses all his appeals and sends his selfish wife into a drug-induced tailspin, enough so that she can hardly care for their son (I really think they should have taken the kid away from her, she was a lousy parent). Fortunately, the smart sister finally decides to forgive her sister and goes to bat for Dallas, eventually winning his freedom at the end of the book. Everyone gets what they want/need/desire in the HEA ending, yet it seemed to come a bit too late for my tastes. Still, the book was engrossing and interesting, and worth a read on the beach or if you're stuck on layover at an airport. I'd give it a C+.

Maybe This Time was also the third of Cruisie's books that I've read. Having loved her "Bet Me" and "Crazy for You" (or was it "Tell me Lies"?) I was prepared to enjoy this paranormal romance (in all but name...I don't think Cruisie's books are filed under that genre). I devoured it, enjoying the heat between Andie the free-spirit and her ex-husband North the businessman who was too busy to pay attention to her, and North's brother "Southie" who is, of course, the wild child, ne'er do well to his brothers button-down perfectionist. But North has a problem, he has a young niece and nephew (Alice and Carter) who have been living in an old mansion with a series of nannies since their one nanny died a mysterious death, as did their parents. Andie's mother is a spiritualist and astrologer, while Norths mother is all power-banker-woman, exact opposites. Add to this mix three menacing ghosts and an evil housekeeper who can't cook, and you've got a recipe for gothic disaster and mayhem. I don't want to spoil the fun for those who haven't read this book yet,(I believe it doesn't come out for another month, I had an ARC) but Andie's struggle to give the children a stable home life and love is perfectly poignant. Her interactions with the ghosts seemed realistic and the pace of the novel was swift and sure. My only problem with the novel was that Cruisie didn't leave it alone at the HEA ending...she tacked on a couple of creepy pages after that were worthy of a Stephen King novel. Pardon me while I shudder and leave the light on in the hallway tonight at bedtime. Perhaps it was her intent to give readers the willies, and while I understand that some people enjoy being scared, I don't. So I left the novel with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. However, I'd still recommend it to anyone who enjoys paranormal romance or chick lit or even a good Bronte novel. Cruisie gets a solid B+ for this one.

Magic on the Storm is the 4th Allie Beckstrom novel in a series by Devon Monk, a Portland, Ore novelist. I recall reading the first novel in one sitting, and thoroughly enjoying it's combination of a Jim Butcher/Harry Dresden universe with an Anita Blake/Laurel Hamilton-Linnea Sinclair-esque style heroine who is comfortable in her own skin and knows how to kick ass and use her powers for good, despite the cost to her mental and physical health. I gather that Patricia Briggs has a series with a strong female magic-wielder, but I've not read those, so I can't compare them with Monks novels. Ann Agguire's Jax character also springs to mind whenever I read an Allie Beckstrom novel, because Jax is one tough cookie who has magical abilities that are often bad for her health. Anyway, in this fourth novel, Allie is once again thrust into some life and death situations in which she and her lover (the screamin' hot Zayvion) are called upon to try and find out why the magic wells under Portland are being depleted while also tracking a wild magic storm and trying to hunt down some bad guys who failed to die in the last installment. So there's an aspect of "tying up loose ends" in this novel that is satisfying on the surface, but frightening when it leads to a cliffhanger at the end. Though I loved the action, and the love scenes between Allie and Zayvion, (and I love Stone, the gargoyle dog! I want one of those because I am allergic to dander, not rock dust) I was disturbed by the fact that Allie's father was still able to exert so much influence over her and possess her body, and that he seems to show so little concern for her actual health and well-being. It seems amazing to me that Allie could have turned out so well with such a lousy parent, one who is so greedy, evil and conceited/narcissistic. Still, Monk did what Jim Butcher did to Harry Dresden in his last novel and we don't know if Allie will come out of this latest happenstance alive and with Zayvion. Stay tuned...and I'd recommend this novel to Jim Butcher fans who like Buffy the Vampire slayer and Anita Blake and other SF/F women who kick tushie. I'd give it an A-

An Irish Country Doctor by Patrick Taylor has been heralded as the new "James Herriot" with the main character being a doctor in Northern Ireland rather than a veterinarian in Northern England. Actually, this first book in the series reminded me of Gervaise Phinn's books on being an educational inspector in Northern England much more than Herriotts works, which were much more humorous and written in a rolicking fashion.
Still, I found the book easy to get into and enjoy, and the good Dr Barry Laverty, who is working with Dr Fingal O'Reilly and will one day take over his country practice, is quite an earnest and interesting fellow who has all the innocence and niavete we've come to expect in our UK heroes. Of course, the townspeople are delightfully eccentric, there's plenty of good folks with good intentions who get into trouble and a lot of ignorant people who have to be lied to for their own sake, and there's the evil town mayor who gets his comuppance, and the beautiful woman who captures Dr Barry's heart. Whether it's Herriot, Phinn or Taylor, these books seem to follow a well-trod path/pattern, and while that might bother some, I find it comforting to know that the bad characters will get what they deserve while the good guys will fall in love and have their dreams come true. There's plenty of local color and even recipes (at the back of the book) for foods discussed in the novel. We get a real feel for the 60s in rural Northern Ireland, and for the limitations of medicine at the time. I've already started the sequel, "An Irish Country Village," and I'd imagine there are one or two more books in the series, keeping us apprised of the progress of the young doctor in winning the minds and hearts of the local villagers in Ballybucklebo. If you're looking for a light read, something heartwarming, relaxing and easy, this is your book. I'd give it a B+

Last but not least is the book that is on tap for the Tuesday night book group at the library, Prayers for Sale by Sandra Dallas, an author I've never heard of, but will now be seeking out. Prayers for Sale is the story of widow Hennie Comfort, who has lived in the high mountains of Middle Swan, Colorado since before it declared statehood. She meets a young miner's wife, Nit Spindle, and because Nit is grieving the loss of her stillborn child (and Hennie has lost a child as well as having miscarriages) Hennie takes Nit under her wing as a quilter and tells her the story of her life in chapter-long flashbacks that fascinate and engross the reader. Since the story takes place during the great Depression, we are privy to the inner workings of miners lives during a time when people starved to death or were killed by cave-ins and faulty equipment. Hennie, who remarried and lost that husband as well, raised a foundling child and through it all felt she had so many blessings she could give out prayers for others (she never charged for them, that was her husbands joke sign that he hung in front of their log cabin). Hennies quilt-making, cooking and homespun wisdom is rich and rings true for all women of that era who learned to make do and deal with good times and bad with love and humor and common sense. This book is such a gem, so filled with generous prose, full-bodied characters and a plot that is strong and sure, I can't imagine anyone disliking it. Hennie reminded me of my grandmother, Gayle Semler, who was also a quilter, a fine cook and a strong, sturdy woman who knew how to tell a story and who was always making sure her neighbors and friends were taken care of--it was an unwritten code, I believe among women in small communities, that you took care of your own, and you didn't let even the weakest among you fall prey to bad times. I recall my grandmother trading fabric with the Amish and Mennonite women nearby, and making glorious quilts with the scraps she had leftover. I used to sit beneath her quilt frame when I was just a toddler and gnaw on some home-made beef jerky or a homemade ginger cookie while grandma got all the latest community news from her fellow quilters. Anyway, Nit and her husband manage to have a healthy baby and Hennie finds love again after all these years, so all's well that ends well in this terrific, emotional and powerful novel. I loved it so much I plan on buying a copy at the earliest opportunity. A solid A for this novel that I'd recommend to anyone who enjoys some good storytelling about a time long past.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

This is a gorgeous blog post on the rapture of reading:

Next, I read The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss over the holiday weekend, and was pleasantly surprised and delighted by the marvelous storytelling found within this hefty tome.

I was not expecting to like this book, having recently been burned by Justin Cronin's The Passage, another hefty SF/F tome that has gotten some serious buzz. Fortunately, Mr. Rothfuss can actually write, and has an intense prose style that is modern and crisp/concise without the stink of too much testosterone and sexist twaddle, like Hemingway or the aforementioned Cronin. (The guy who wrote "Fight Club" and the guy who wrote "Little Children" both have written fiction that reeks of testosterone poisoning).

The Name of the Wind is the tale of Kvothe, a legendary figure who was part scholar, wizard, warrior and troubador. Having gone into hiding by working as a pub owner in a small village, Kvothe (called Kote) and his student Bast, who is a disguised satyr, are trying to fade into obscurity when some monsters from his past make an appearance and a scribe, called Chronicaller shows up to ask Kvothe for the real story of his past. Only after his identity is in danger of being revealed does Kvothe sit back and regale his student and the scribe with the story of how he came to be a legend.

The book alternates between short and long chapters, in which we learn through the excellent storytelling abilities of Kvothe (and Rothfuss, of course) about his childhood with a traveling acting/singing troupe, his parents death at the hands of the Chandrian, a mythical group of beings who are actually quite real, and his admission to the University at a young age, where he soon makes a name for himself and cuts a swathe through the academic's BS like a hot knife through butter. Fascinating side characters are revealed, and the reader gets a clear view of the realities of Kvothes struggles and triumphs, which are both more and less than the legends that spring from them.

This was the kind of novel that I end up staying up until 2 am to finish, because I just HAVE to find out what happens to the protagonist, or I won't be able to sleep. Though it is obvious that the story of Kvothe is far from over, I was happy to note that Rothfuss didn't leave his readers hanging at the end, but instead brought the story to a natural conclusion, one that will seque nicely into the next phase of the story.

I'd recommend this wonderful book to those who love Jim Butchers Harry Dresden (The Dresden Files) series, or those who like Tolkien-style fantasy that isn't quite as fussy and full of endless details. The Name of the Wind gets a solid A.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Time Weaver by Shana Abe

First, a lovely quote from Shelf Awareness--I agree 100 percent!

The Perfect Bookstore Offers a 'Transformative Experience'

"What is the dream of book lovers everywhere? To visit the perfect book
store, one that stocks only the best of books, where 'best' is defined
by the guarantee of a transformative experience via the magical linking
of words into sentences into paragraphs into chapters into BOOKS. A
place where tables display not the latest products of publishers and
marketers but instead the trustworthy choices of other book lovers. A
place with couches to sit on, a place with long opening hours and a
welcoming staff, a place where customers spend as much time as they want
browsing or reading. A place where only good books are sold and no bad
choices can be made.... The function of a bookstore is to match lover
and loved to ensure the perfect date. The purpose of the bookseller is
to provide what we addicts need, and a good bookseller recommends the
best stuff to satisfy our love for books."

--Nina Sankovitch, in her Huffington Post review
of A Novel Bookstore

I started reading Shana Abe's "Drakon" books when I caught all the buzz about "The Smoke Thief" several years ago. I'd heard it was beautifully written fantasy/romance set in the 18th century, and had an original take on dragon mythology.

I was not disappointed. Not only was the cover gorgeous, the prose was elegant, beautiful and engrossing. The plot was swift and sure, and the characters fascinating, so riveting, in fact, that I recall staying up all night, unable to stop reading because I felt so close to the characters and their plight.
I was so delighted by The Smoke Thief, that I devoured The Dream Thief, Queen of Dragons and the Treasure Keeper, in rapid succession. I even delved into one of her non-dragon books, The Last Mermaid.

So when I was pinged by that Ms Abe's latest book, "The Time Weaver" was out, I was nearly beside myself with anticipation, yearning to immerse myself in Ms Abe's glittering, lush world of dragon/human hybrids once more.

Though The Time Weaver is a darker book than the previous four novels, it still shines with Abe's luminous prose and graceful characters, gliding from chapter to chapter in scales or smoke or skin. Her prose is so evocative you can smell them, taste the air they breathe and feel the grass they trod on nearly every page.

Each member of the Drakon, be they male or female tends to have a special talent, and in this novel, Honor Carlisle hasn't got the talent to turn to smoke or dragon form, yet she can bring herself in and out of time, from the distant past to the future, and can find herself looking at her soul mate, prince Alexandru of Zaharen Yce in the Carpathians, at different times in his life and in hers. There are problems and risks in time travel, however, and Honor doesn't realize them until it is nearly too late.
Fortunately, we have Amalia (Lia) and Zane the thief from a previous novel to intervene and fix the problems that arise.

I'd recommend this novel to anyone who has read "The Time Travelers Wife" hoping that it was more fantasy than it ended up being, and to those who have a fascination with dragons, Patricia McKillip-esque fantasy worlds and superb, original storytelling rife with unforgettable characters.