Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Mount Toberead 12 - The Fairy Godmother by Mercedes Lackey

Quite some time ago, I was a big fan of Mercedes Lackey/ I read one of her Valdemar books (from memory it the was first of The Last Herald Mage trilogy) and I was hooked. I gathered as much of her Valdemar stuff as I could and then moved onto other things, Amongst them was a wonderful urban fantasy series about a witch called Diana Tregarde. Unfortunately at the time urban fantasy hadn't boomed as a genre and for a number of reasons (sales amongst them) Lackey gave up writing Diana Tregarde books after 3 entries. I still think they're amongst the best things she's written.

This one sat on Mount Toebread for a while. My wife had read it and other entries into her reimagined fairy tales. The Fairy Godmother is a fun book and some of her alterations to fairy tales are quite clever. In this one Cinderella (known as Elena) becomes the fairy godmother and has to find her own prince. He starts out not very good at all, but after spending a period of time as a donkey, appreciates the advantages he's been given and comes to fall in love with Elena.

I felt the book could have been a good deal shorter and an easier and better read for it. There was a lot of info dumping around the tales she was telling and involving the magic system she'd invented for this. There was also a fair bit of repetition. Overall it was a solid story, but it did drag through the middle before ramping up the action and ending up as a reader would expect with a fairy tale, happily ever after.

M looks like fun with A. Lee Martinez on my radar,

Friday, May 4, 2018

Mount Toberead 11 - The Glamourist Histories by Mary Robinette Kowal

I kind of cheated with these. They were on my Toberead pile, but my wife had read them all and adored them. It was largely due to her urging that I put them in this challenge. I did always want to be read them, it was a matter of getting the right time and I decided to shot gun them all.

Prior to the publication of Shades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal was better known as a science fiction author, with some of her work having been nominated for the Hugo and Nebula awards, Shades of Milk and Honey was also her first full length novel.

Shades of Milk and Honey is very much a Jane Austen influenced story. At times it feels like reading Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, but with magic in the form of glamour. In that it's another entry in the recent (20 or so years) subgenre of Regency romance influenced fantasy. Susannah Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Caroline Stevermer and Patricia C. Wrede's Cecelia and Kate series and Emma Newman's Split Worlds all fit into that category in some ways. I don't think the author originally envisioned a series, because the first book is very much standalone, although she gave herself room for growth, particularly in the relationship between her Mr Darcyesque male lead Mr Vincent and her protagonist Jane.

With Glamour in Glass it became more apparent that the whole idea had legs. This is when the themes in the books started. It was very much a 'war' or even 'spies' book. Showing that glamour had practical military applications put me in mind of similar uses in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. The science fiction author in Mary Robinette Kowal came to the fore as she delved deeper into how and why glamour worked. It's interesting to see authors explain how magic works. I've seen people say that Brandon Sanderson has some of the best thought out and explained magic systems. He doesn't hold a candle to what Kowal did with glamour in these books.

Without a Summer used a historical fact that is only just being better known about in recent times as its backdrop. That was 1816 the year that the eruption of Mt Tambora played havoc with world weather patterns and effectively meant that the northern hemisphere didn't really get a summer. The book was a legal drama and I think of the 5 it was my favourite. The courtroom battle and the machinations of Vincent's horrible aristocratic family kept me reading until late into the night and early into the morning.

Then came Valour and Vanity, which was the caper/heist novel. This was a heap of fun, we had characters like Vincent's friend Lord Byron playing a significant part. There was a puppeteer character who had to be based on Mary Robinette Kowal herself, who is a puppeteer. And the whole thing was set in Venice. Most of the action took place on Murano, though.

By the time Of Noble Family came out it was apparent that there had to be a reckoning between Vincent and his father. The book was easily the biggest of the whole series and it had a family saga feel to it. It was also set in the West Indies, which gave it a very exotic feel and is not a place that many fantasies are actually set. Adventure novels, yes, but not fantasy, unless it's a secondary world that has a Caribbean feel to it.

Overall the entire series was a great read. The characters were solid and the magic had a real feel to it, because of the care and detail the author took and found fit to include. They were well paced and easy to read, they contained fun and drama in the correct amounts. I was a little sad when I finished Of Noble Family, but at the same time I felt that the series and the characters had come to a satisfying conclusion. There is room to write more in the world, but I would prefer that it be left where it was and not go to the well too often.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Mount Toberead 10: The Abused Werewolf Rescue Group by Catherine Jinks

The Reformed Vampire Support Group also by Catherine Jinks is one of the best recent vampire novels I've read over the last 10 or so years. I call it the Anti-Twilight, as it basically explains exactly why being an immortal vampire (especially a teenage one) sucks (pun not intended).

Despite that, for some reason, the sequel; The Abused Werewolf Rescue Group, wound up on Mount Toberead for quite some time. I really don't know why. It could be that werewolves tend to interest me less than vampires, and I'm really not that into vampires, either.

One of the unusual things about both books is that they're set in and around Sydney. The reason for this is that Catherine Jinks is an Australian, and she lives in Australia (although not all of her books are set in the country). It's hard to write Australians, although being an Aussie, I probably give that a higher bar than most. Jinks gets it right and her descriptions of her setting prove that she does actually know the city that she's talking about. One of the vernacular things that she did get wrong, though, was referring to tomato sauce as ketchup. We rarely call it that.

The existence of werewolves along with the vampires in Sydney was mentioned in the first book, and the rescue of some of them being used to illegal dog fights in the outback was also part of the plot.

This one concerns a fairly clueless young man called Toby, who becomes a werewolf. Jinks changed a few things about the accepted methods and backgrounds of werewolves. It's not passed on by being bitten by an infected one, it's a hereditary thing (rather like in the original Teen Wolf film) and it also seems to affect people with Portuguese or Spanish heritage (not sure why Jinks targeted that particular background, but it was a point of difference).

Toby came across as quite real, as did his friends Fergus and Amin. In fact I did find it rather odd that Toby, who was a bit whiny and dopey at times, hung out with an idiot like Fergus, I also thought it strange that Amin also hung out with Fergus,. Not only was he an idiot, he was one with dangerous and stupid ideas.

The story mostly concerns Toby coming to terms with being a werewolf (it sucks about as much as being a teenage vampire does, although at least Toby won't live forever and won't permanently remain at 14 years old, he's also not dead) and trying to get his mother to deal with the reality as well.

He is eventually taken by members of the same illegal fight ring that appeared in the first book and has to be rescued by members of the Vampire Support Group. It's quite funny, sometimes violent  and confronting, it also moves fast and is fairly likeable due to a diverse and interesting, well drawn cast.

I wish I'd read it a bit earlier. although I still enjoyed it. I did find The Reformed Vampire Support Group a better book, however.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Mount Toberead 9: Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson

There aren't a lot of authors whose surnames start with I (there may be, but they aren't on the shelves of our library), so I was in a bit of a quandary until I saw my wife's collection of Eva Ibbitson books. I'd never read anything by her, but my wife had urged me to on a couple of occasions. Here was the opportunity. Journey to the River Sea appealed to me most.

It's not fantasy, although it does have adventure and it's set in a very different world than that familiar to many of us. It's basically the story of a sunny dispositioned English girl Maia and her life after her parents pass away and she's sent to live with a family of distant relatives in Brazil.

The Carters, specifically Mrs Carter and her horrible twins Beatrice and Gwendolyn, could have come straight out of Cinderella. Mrs Carter made a splendid Lady Tremaine, and her daughters were excellent stepsisters.

Maia isn't alone, though, she has her governess Miss Minton and later meets Finn and has the young actor Clovis King. While I found most of the characters a bit too clearly either all bad (Beatrice and Gwendolyn) or all good (Maia, she's actually too pleasant to be believable), I loved Miss Minton, she definitely had layers to her. She also reminded me of Terry Pratchett's Perspicacia Tick.

The story, while not revolutionary, moves fast and is involving. Ibbotson used her setting well and described it vividly, even if it was just a little too pleasant at times. I did find myself comparing Ibbotson's writing with that of other teen and children's authors and she came off favourably. The others should read some of Ibbotson to work out how to really write.

After the frustration of A. G. Howard, Eva Ibbotson and Maia were a welcome remedy.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Mount Toberead 8: Splintered, Unhinged, Ensnared, Untamed and Roseblood by A. G. Howard

As you can see by the title and the covers above I went on a bit of a binge when I got to H.

I also probably cheated a bit. The first 3 of the books were already on the shelves, but for completeness sake I bought the 4th (which is a book of short stories set in the same world and featuring the characters from the Splintered series) and the 5th (an entirely new story that I hope for the author's sake and her fans, is a standalone).

They were my wife's selection (and I think she's read at least the first 2 of the Splintered series), and largely chosen on the strength of the covers, and they are absolutely gorgeous.

The Splintered series is an entry into the various Wonderland related works. Central character Alyssa Gardner is a descendant of Alice Liddell (the girl who Lewis Carroll based Alice on) and as such has very vivid dreams set in Wonderland and also hears bugs speak to her. Alyssa lives in the town of Pleasance in Texas (Texas is also where the author lives, and the town name is a bit of an Easter egg for anyone who knows a little bit about the source material, Alice Liddell's middle name was Pleasance), and her mother is institutionalised for attempting to harm her daughter (this is a recurring theme in Howard's books, the lead character of Roseblood was also a survivor of attempted harm by a family member, in that case it was her grandmother). Alice's  female descendants all seem to suffer mentally because of their origins. Alyssa also claims that Alice suffered from mental illness towards the end of her life (I can't find anything to suggest that this was in fact the case) and was treated with electroshock therapy, using electric eels (again I can't find anything that says Alice Liddell, or Hargreaves as her married name, was ever given electroshock therapy, or that it was ever administered using electric eels to provide the current). I can't work out if the author actually thought this was real or deliberately played with history to have fun with her readers, maybe it was a way of illustrating Alyssa's state of mind, but I'm not convinced that was the case.

Eventually Alyssa does find her way to Wonderland and is accompanied by hunky bad boy Jeb Holt (Howard has a thing for bad boys, there are 2 of them in the Splintered series and 1 in Roseblood). They meet up with Morpheus (the 3rd point of the love triangle) and set about to try and fix Wonderland and in the process help Alyssa's life in our world.

I have to speak about Morpheus here. Plenty of the characters are altered versions of the ones seen in Lewis Carroll's original, heavily influenced by Tim Burton's take, but Morpheus is probably the most changed. He's actually the hookah smoking caterpillar, although metamorphosed into a moth. He is weirdly enough a good deal younger than he was as a caterpillar and now speaks with a Cockney accent. I've never seen any other work that tried to make a romantic connection between Alice and the caterpillar, but Splintered does it. He's actually not just interested in Alyssa, but anyone from her family line, it's just that Alyssa is the youngest and he believes he can keep her that way. That concept and the entire character are actually rather creepy, and I still don't understand why the author or the main character was attracted to him on any level.

Each book in the trilogy follows a different character's journey. Splintered is Alyssa's, Unhinged is Morpheus' and Ensnared is Jeb's. The ending book saw Alyssa faced with the choice of living out her days in the real world with Jeb or staying forever young in Wonderland with Morpheus. The author worked it so that Alyssa got to eat her cake and have it too. I felt rather ripped off by that and think that the readers were shortchanged.

Howard has strengths and weaknesses as an author. For me the weaknesses outnumbered the strengths. She writes fairly strong characters, although she can only write 3 types of characters. Replace Morpheus with Etalon in Roseblood and no one would notice the difference, Rune from Roseblood is basically a dark haired Alyssa and when she write Alyssa's mother Alison as a young teen in Untamed, if she hadn't occasionally mentioned the name Alison I would have been convinced that I was reading about Alyssa. I must admit I did kind of like Jeb, except for when he went all alpha male in the guise of doing right by Alyssa.

Her weaknesses as an author are many. Firstly there's the bad boy obsession. Then there's her taking liberties with actual history to suit her story (she seems to subscribe to a theory that The Phantom of the Opera was in fact some sort of psychic vampire, she also seems to think that The Phantom of the Opera was a factual recounting of events, and not a fiction). There are a lot of very elaborate descriptions of clothes that simply aren't required. No one seems to own a couch or a sofa, they all have chaise lounges. She uses a lot of $5 words when a $2 word would do just fine and probably make her point more clearly.

So why did I read 5 books? That's one of Howard's strengths. She does weave a clever and involving enough story that the reader wants to read to the end and find out what happens, even if she does mess it up by giving her work too happy an ending.

I will mention that the only reason I got through Roseblood was sheer bloodymindedness.

The Splintered trilogy and the associated book of short stories (Untamed) have their moments and are harmless enough pieces of YA fantasy romantic fluff. Roseblood is something else altogether, the only good thing about that book is the cover (and that wasn't drawn by the author). The best review I can give it is: The Phantom of the Opera meets Twilight.

Now that I've managed to climb out of the worlds of A. G. Howard with all my brain cells intact, I'll see what I can find with an I author.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Mount Toberead 7: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

I'm not sure why this one sat on the mountain as long as it did, and it was literally years. It could have to do with the fact that I'm really not that into Gaiman. I have read some of his work (Good Omens, which he cowrote with Terry Pratchett and I mainly read that because of Pratchett's involvement, Neverwhere and Norse Gods), and came away not all that impressed. Norse Gods was fun, but I tend to prefer the retellings by the likes of Roger Lancelyn Green.

Anyway the letter G came up. I looked at the shelves in the library and The Graveyard Book leapt out at me. It is far and away the best Neil Gaiman book I've read. It won the Hugo and I can see why. It may suffer from the fact that people see it as a 'kids book', and yes it was clearly written for a younger audience, but it's one of those rare books that works on a cross generational level. Kids can read it and will enjoy it, but adults can also read and enjoy it, but possibly for a number of different reasons.

It's certainly a different sort of book, about a child who escapes from a murder attempt and is found by ghosts in a nearby graveyard. They raise him, along with the help of a vampire and dub him Nobody. Often protagonists in novels aimed at younger readers can grate on older readers. I didn't get that with Bod, I genuinely liked him and wished him well.

The Graveyard Book is quite enchanting. It is at various times funny, touching, sad, frightening and tense. I haven't heard anything about a filmed version, but I think it would work well on screen, possibly better than other filmed Gaiman works have. The version I read featured illustrations by Chris Riddell and they set it off perfectly.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Mount Toberead 6: The Woman Who Died a Lot by Jasper Fforde

How did this one even wind up on Mount Toberead? The Eyre Affair (Jasper Fforde's debut and the first book in the Thursday Next series) is one of my all time favourite books. I've read it many times and enjoy it every time. The two sequels (Lost in a Good Book and The Well of Lost Plots) were worthy successors and together make a wonderful trilogy. That is however where it should have ended. There can be too much of a good thing, and the Thursday Next books have been becoming less and less entertaining, beginning with the 4th book of the series (Something Rotten), there have been 3 books since Something Rotten.

Jasper Fforde hasn't written another Thursday Next book since The Woman Who Died a Lot, that was in 2012, and while there is a note in the back that Thursday will return, there hasn't been anything forthcoming. I kind of hope there isn't, because Thursday Next has become the sort of series that lives on past glories and has gone to the well too many times, only to find it dry.

Some of my most loved things about the books were the Bookworld and Thursday's Uncle Mycroft. Neither are present in The Woman Who Died a Lot. Fortunately Thursday still has her pet dodo Pickwick, but there's not enough of the extinct bird, either.

By now the jokes have become stale and strained. The characters behave illogically, they've always been silly, but that was in keeping with the sheer weirdness of the reality they lived in, in this book and the previous one, it just seemed off. There's a great deal of deus ex machina at work here, so readers know that the characters aren't in any real peril, because they'll find some magical way out of whatever situation they find themselves in. This kills tension and detracts from the narrative itself. The situation of Thursday's son Friday was one of the most interesting, but even that ended with a whimper rather than a bang.

To be honest, and it hurts to say this, but The Woman Who Died a Lot could have stayed on the mountain and I wouldn't be any the poorer for not having read it.