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Archive for September, 2011

Fantasy Friday – Citadel of the Autarch‏

Friday, September 30th, 2011

 

The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe

 

Review by Bowden P (Trey

 

In the last volume of the Book of the New Sun, the campaign against the Accians is the focus of the story. A large part of it is spent in a Pelerine hospital, where Severian finds himself after the events of Sword of the Lictor. He’s hurt, he’s exhausted and literally wrung out after the climatic battle. There, he and his companion (picked up in the first chapters of the novel) are taken for a pair of wounded – Miles as a wounded and amnesiac soldier, Severian as a civil servant attached to the administration of the army. Miles, recovers more quickly than Severian, so Severian, so he is left in a tent with other soldiers suffering long term injuries.

While there, he’s asked to judge a story contest between the soldiers and one Accian prisoner, all for the hand of a female soldier. These little stories help showcase Wolfe’s talents as a writer. Despite his busyness and illness, he even manages to return the Claw to its proper home. Which is a minor miracle of itself given the skepticism of the Pelerines. After his recovery, and errand that takes him far away (Wolfe continues to play with time and space here) to the enigmatic Father Ash, Severian returns to a massacre and then truly goes to war.

So… is it good? Yes. Wolfe goes back to some of his earlier tricks with vocabulary of looting the and out of use for terms. Its refreshing to see and returns the earlier flavor of the series. We readers are also introduced to the fantastic – anpiels (angels in all but name), mastiff men and cat ladies. And with the last two, it seems Wolfe has some fun with their personal names as well. More importantly than the games Wolfe plays with language and history, he revisits Severian’s past for new spins on past events and characters of the novels. Specifically:

  • The Autarch returns and he has laid plans for Severian.
  • Wolfe begins to answer questions, closing plot holes and time loops.
  • Chekhov’s guns introduced in the earlier volumes are fired with great enthusiasm.

Wolfe crafted Citadel of the Autarch with great skill. It has very well done plot, good characterization and some sense of wonder moments (with wonder’s dark twin of horror not far behind). As before, I love the little stories Wolfe weaves into the book. They’re recognizable confabulation of myth, history and fable, and readers may even be able to spot the origins. I was particularly taken with the tale of the Accian Prisoner, Loyal to the Group of Seventeen, because it was so unsettling – a nightmare fairy tale from 1984. Again, I maintain if Wolfe had gotten into writing children’s books with a good illustrator, he’d have given Geisel a run for his money.

The verdict: 5 stars.  As a close to the series, Citadel of the Autarch is worth it. What’s more, the title refers less to the Autarch’s incredible palace with its hidden inner citadel, but more to the very nature of the Autarch him/herself. I hope I’m not spoiling it with that, but read the book. Or if you have, please feel free to comment.

 

Likes: The closing of plot holes; The use of earlier Chekhov’s guns (totally worth it to get the collected SFBC edition and Michael Andre-Druissi’s Lexicon Urthus to help keep track of them all); The return to playing with discarded and old terms – but still having a good idea of what they mean; Revisiting characters and what they did; Closing plot holes and time loops – often at the same time; Sense of wonder and horror moments; The little stories braided in among the novel.

 

Dislikes: As before, I’m not sure how I feel about what Wolfe demands of his readers. Its not an easy or fast read. I have to take it a few chapters at a time. But the pay off has been worth it so far…

 

Suggested for: Gene Wolfe fans, those that like challenging books and science  fiction that verges onto literature.

Tim Myers’ Cozy Mystery Candlemaking Series

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

 

Review by VickyJo

 

Working in a public library is never dull.  People come in all day long, looking for all kinds of information, or searching for the next great book to read.  Once, an elderly lady returned her books to me at the front desk, and then asked if I could recommend another book for her to read.  I asked what types of books she enjoyed.  She said, “I’d like a nice murder.  You know, nothing too bloody. Just…something nice.”  It’s a strange phrase, “nice murder.”  But what she wanted was a “cozy mystery.”

In the publishing world, a cozy mystery has specific guidelines.  It’s a murder mystery that features a bloodless crime, and has very little to no graphic violence, sex or language.  Quite often, the murder victim is someone the reader hardly knows, like the rich uncle or the reclusive neighbor, and thus isn’t someone we really miss.

The main character is very often an amateur sleuth, who gets involved and solves the crime for personal reasons.  The fun part about cozies is that the reader is encouraged to solve the crime first; the author gives clues to help the reader along, and all loose ends are always tied up by the end of the novel.

Agatha Christie wrote cozies, and her novels made the small English village a very popular cozy setting, but cozies take place anywhere.  They do tend to happen in small towns or settings, so that the pool of suspects is small and the murder can be solved.  You won’t usually find serial killers in a cozy.  Believe it or not, they are considered “feel good” stories; justice always prevails in the end, and the community is restored to peace and order.

The trend lately is to have a cozy series: a likeable character with a fun job who solves crime after crime in his or her small town.  Think Jessica Fletcher of Murder She Wrote.  Cabot Cove, Maine had a million murders, but intrepid, likeable mystery author Fletcher managed to solve them all (with a little help from her friends).

I’ve just finished reading a cozy series that I really enjoyed.  The author is Tim Myers, and he has written The Candle Making Series of mysteries, featuring Harrison Black.

The first book, “At Wick’s End introduces Harrison.  His great-aunt Belle has just died in a mysterious fall from a ladder, and she left her candle making shop to Harrison in her will.  Harrison decides to comply with Aunt Belle’s wishes and continue running the shop.  Once he arrives in the small town of Micah’s Ridge, he is surprised to discover that, not only does he own At Wick’s End, but he owns the converted, two-story warehouse that the shop is in, called River’s Edge.  There are several other shops, which make Harrison’s inheritance a bit more complicated than he originally thought.

Harrison also moves into Aunt Belle’s apartment above At Wick’s End, and is immediately suspicious when the apartment is broken into and searched.  Could his Aunt Belle’s death have been, not an accident, but murder?  Harrison decides he has no choice but to try and find out who would want to kill Aunt Belle—and why.

The second novel, “Snuffed Out” finds Harrison a little more settled in his shop.  He is getting used to retail selling and is finding that he has a real love and talent for making candles.  He is also becoming more comfortable in his role as landlord for the other shop owners at River’s Edge: Heather, who runs a New Age shop called The New Age; Millie, who runs a coffee/snack shop called The Crocked Pot, and several others.  So when the power goes out unexpectedly, Harrison is called upon to find the solution.  What he discovers is something else entirely: Aaron, who owns a pottery shop called The Pot Shot, is found dead at his pottery wheel, a frayed electrical cord and a spilled bucket of water telling the dismal tale of how he died.  Or does it?  Heather tells Harrison that Aaron hated electric wheels, and never used them to throw his pots.  He only had one for his students to use.

Harrison immediately becomes suspicious, but the local police seem content to accept Aaron’s death as accidental.  Besides, most of the admittedly small force in Micah’s Ridge is out with the flu.  So it looks like it’s up to Harrison to do some discreet investigating on his own.

In the meantime, Harrison does have a business to run.  He needs to find a new tenant for Aaron’s shop, and he thinks he’s found the perfect choice in Aaron’s ex-wife, Sanora, also a potter.  He gives her a two month lease, to see how things work out.  Little does he know that Sanora worked with Aaron before their divorce, and left about the same time some money mysteriously disappeared from another shop.  Needless to say, the other tenants of River’s Edge are not exactly thrilled to have Sanora back.  Heather, the owner of The New Age is especially put out; seems she and Aaron had been dating, but he dropped her when he thought he had a chance to reconcile with Sanora.  Harrison now finds himself between two women who both loved and lost the same man.  Could Sanora have killed Aaron out of jealousy?  Or, harder to believe, could Heather have killed him?  Harrison has become friends with Heather and doesn’t want to believe she could kill anyone.  But strange things keep happening around River’s Edge as Harrison gets closer and closer to solving Aaron’s murder.  And it doesn’t look good for Heather.

This second installment is another fun read.  If you’re looking for blood, chills, serial killers and nightmares, this series isn’t for you.  But if you want a quick, fun read with lots of atmosphere and candle making tips, try Tim Myers’ series.  He’s written four altogether; the third book is “Death Waxed Over” and the fourth is “A Flicker of Doubt.”  All four books are perfect for getting away for a few hours!

 

 

Romantic Suspense Review – Secrets of Bella Terra

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

Secrets of Bella Terra by Christina Dodd

 

Review by reacherfan1909

 

Lately, romantic suspense has seen an influx of standard romance writers looking to cash in on this popular, and rather under-appreciated genre.  The books are unabashed romance, but with a mystery and threat of danger.  Jayne Ann Krentz always had these elements in both her contemporary books and her Amanda Quick Regency books years before she became the archetype that other romance writers followed.

Christina Dodd formerly specialized in historical (mostly Regency) and fantasy historical romances, contemporary romance, did some paranormal, and then moved into contemporary romantic suspense style books.  Secrets of Bella Terra is Book 1 in the new Scarlet Deception romantic suspense series.  Here’s the thing, romantic suspense, to be really good, needs a certain sense of authenticity about the tough male character.  The favorite male characters are cop/FBI/CIA type, military or ex-military, or some kind of tough guy from a mixed background that includes a lot of weapons training.  Creating such a believable male lead, is not easy.  On the upside, most romantic suspense readers aren’t fans of writers like Barry Eisler, John Donohue, Stephen Hunter, Kyle Mills, or the many ex-spec ops guys (some of whom can’t write decent characters, but are great with the action parts) writing today’s action suspense thrillers.  This means female authors can get away with glossing over the particulars while relying on clever characters and good plotting.  A handful do far better than that, and ably plot a complex thriller element,  Check out Suzanne Brockman‘s earlier SEAL Team/Troubleshooters books (Out of Control and Over the Edge could be considered “Best of Breed”), Tara Janzen‘s Crazy and Steel Street series, and Marliss Melton‘s SEAL stories (she’s wife to a career navy man), Roxanne St Claire‘s Bullet Catchers, and Anne Stuart‘s Ice series (especially Blue Ice).  All are well done, original and interesting romantic suspense.  In defense of romance writers, all authors take liberties with technical details, even  the male authors, for the sake of story flow.  I just find it hard not to pick on these things, because if I can see it, heaven knows what experienced eyes see.

 

There are three DiLuca brothers, Eli, Noah, and Rafe.  Same father, Gavino DiLuca, an actor, but three different mothers, they got to know each other with Nonna.  Rafe DiLuca is the son of Italian movie star Francesca.  He even had a brief acting stint in a children’s movie, but Rafe had no interest in the world of drama that his parents inhabited.  Like his half brother’s, he was mostly raised by their Nonna.  He is now a top of the line mercenary with an elite group of ex-military types working for him.  He’s on a rescue mission in a remote country unfriendly to US military when he gets called about his grandmother.  Sarah DiLuca, Nonna, has been assaulted and is in the hospital back in Bella Valley, California where his two brothers run Bella Terra Resort and Winery.  The winery had been first, but during Prohibition, wine making was stopped and the family needed another way to make a living, so the Bella Terra Resort began.

 

When Rafe returns, he finds another part of his past is there as well – Brooke Petersson is now head concierge at the resort and a close friend of the family.  Brooke is the girl he left behind and she’s determined NOT to allow him back in her heart – and he’s determined not to allow himself to give in to what he’s always wanted.  The reunion finds both still strongly attracted to each other, then heroine stupidity syndrome hits.  The syndrome is, unfortunately, not just found in cozy mysteries, it’s found in far too many romantic suspense novels.  Even more unfortunately, stupidity is not limited to Brooke, Nonna had it for a long time too.  She’s kept secrets – well, dangerous, stupid and, just plain DUBM secrets.

 

Brooke starts nosing around the resort and finds a body, a missing gardener is dead.  Now, is this a sufficient hint that that chasing criminals is a very bad idea? I realize Brooke feels she has to prove her independence and ability to take care of herself to Rafe, but making stupid decisions only proved the opposite.

 

This scenario had all the potential for an excellent bit of romantic suspense in beautiful California wine country, but somehow, it all just slipped away.  Eli, Noah, and Rafe are good characters wasted on a poorly executed, often annoying story.  Brooke irritated me.  I have a low threshold for female leads who persist in pursing a course of action for which they are eminently unsuited!  What kind of delusions make them think pursuing a dangerous criminal who has proved he/she will attack any threat is a good idea?  And since when is a champagne bottle a  good weapon.  Maybe James Bond could make it work with some MacGyver ingenuity and a classic Bond quip.  A concierge?  Please, do not insult my intelligence.  Nonna and Brooke’s mother, Kathy, a retired career military woman with a bad divorce behind her, both gave me the urge to yell, “Grow UP!”  Jenna, the head of the resort spa, is another case of arrested emotional development.  Ebrillwen, head of housekeeping, was the most sensible, astute person in the whole book.  And since  when is the head concierge responsible for resort management and human resources?

 

At 400+ pages the story is long, but despite an interesting cast of characters, it lacks that plot edge or tension that makes really good romantic suspense.  There is a nice twist at the end, though it seemed a cop out by an author not quite able to execute a tension filled, believable story.  Notably absent was the sense of humor and self deprecating wit that can often carry a slight plot to much higher levels.  The glaring deficits make it tough to take it seriously.  Fans of romantic suspense light might be happy campers, but fans of any of the authors listed above are doomed to disappointment.  Even the ‘romance’ part was only average for me.  The old, “I’ll let him my bed, but not my heart” routine is trite and very stale here. The byplay of the 3 DiLuca brothers is well done and possibly the best part of the book.  Making Rafe a mercenary was a bad idea poorly executed.  Penguin/Signet should have sold this as plain Contemporary Romance and stopped trying to force a ‘suspense’ element.

 

My rating for The Secrets of Bella Terra is C, .  The romance portion is a C+, but the suspense part is C-, so as romantic suspense, it’s just a C.

Non-Fiction Review – Angel Cats

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

Angel Cats: Divine Messengers of Comfort by Allen & Linda Anderson


Review by McGuffyAnn M. (nightprose)


 

This is a spirituality book written specifically for cat lovers. The authors are the founders of The Angel Animals Network. They offer newsletters, are inspirational speakers, and clergy.

 

In this book, there are a variety of true accounts of cat messengers. These cats offer divine intervention of comfort and encouragement from beyond The Rainbow Bridge. There are photos of the cats in each story. In addition, at the end of each account is a meditation, by Cuddles the cat.

 

Each cat brings a message, something important to impart on its human left behind. Whether it is Alpha the cat, whose message was one of deep unconditional love, or Shadow who taught trust, each cat had a purpose in life and in death.

 

One particular story that illustrates the bond between cats and their people is the story of the cat who watched over her little girl through the Holocaust. Anne Frank even mentions the comfort of Peter’s cat, Mouschi, in hiding. Perhaps this was the way the cat she was forced to leave behind, Moortje, looked over Anne.

 

I know there have been times when my own cats have comforted me through times of stress, tragedy, or illness. I have had times when I came across a photo, or a toy that had belonged to one who had crossed that Rainbow Bridge. Even those little things are a comfort, just knowing they are there.

 

All cat lovers know the pleasure of a warm furry body with a comforting purr. This book goes beyond the Bridge to show that “Angel Cats” remain by our side, not only in our hearts. I am one of those who believe that animals do go to Heaven. It just wouldn’t be Heaven without them. Love surpasses death.

Mystery Monday – Behind that Curtain

Monday, September 26th, 2011

 

Behind that Curtain by Earl Derr Biggers

 

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)  

 


This novel is the third Charlie Chan mystery.  San Francisco is evocatively described so we readers can enjoy the vivid sense of place Biggers put across in the first two Chan outings. He handled the setting of Hawaii beautifully in the first one The House Without a Key (1925) and described the Mojave desert country in the second The Chinese Parrot (1926).

Like all the other Chan novels, this was originally published as a serial in the magazine The Saturday Evening Post, so some chapters end with cliffhangers. The plot is intricate, involving murders committed years apart and a woman who changes identities at the drop of a hat. Or in this case, the drop of a pair of Chinese slippers, which is the only clue that ties the two killings together.

Another plus is Biggers’ understated sense of comedy. His stand-in who gets off witty observations, Barry Kirk, is a rich bon-vivant who has funny exchanges with his society matron grandmother and his would-be girl friend, an assistant district attorney named Miss Morrow. Biggers is sensitive to the career obstacles faced by working women, though he will often refer to Miss Morrow as “the girl.” Biggers was born in 1885, after all.

Activists and critics nowadays disrespect poor Charlie Chan for his inscrutability, servility, dainty walk, sing-song voice, and unidiomatic English (in Behind That Curtain, he says, “The facts must be upearthed”). Writer Gish Jen even dismisses Chan’s astute intelligence, designating him as “the original Asian whiz kid.” I wonder sometimes if nowadays critics are annoyed with Chan less because of the novels but more because of the movies which had Caucasian actors playing Chan and period stereotypes of blacks, Asians, and women.

For what it’s worth, I think in both the novels and movies Charlie Chan is wise, courageous, modest, patient, devoted to his family, and loyal to his friends. Like many non-native speakers, he uses English in his own unique way that, as a speaker of broken Japanese, I can’t help but respect him for the time and effort that he put in to get fluent in a second language as an adult. The Chan novels overturn Chinese stereotypes because Chan was playing the role of the Good Guy, whereas most Chinese characters in fiction back then were villains.  Generally speaking, I like detective fiction from 1920s and 1930s.  As formulaic as it is, I like the atmosphere, characterization, and narrative push. I like it that violence happens off stage. There is little or no moral relativism, film noir-ish nihilism or sociopathic tough-mindedness.  I must not be alone in this preference – for once  – since the Chan novels never stay out of print and are available on these new-fangled contraptions like Kindle.

Banned Books Week – Sept 24 through Oct 1

Saturday, September 24th, 2011

By Tammy (lildrafire)

 

 

Wouldn’t life be grand if every book you picked up, every television show or movie you watched, every magazine or newspaper you read was sanitized?  No worries about being exposed to profanity, violence, sexual situations, unsavory lifestyles and the sort.  Grand?  I think not!  Life is nothing more than an accumulation of experiences of every sort, and if a person cannot physically experience all life has to offer, both positive and negative, there is media of every kind, especially books, portraying other’s experiences, both fiction and non-fiction, for everyone to enjoy, to to learn from or just to experience secondhand what the creator intended.  There are people who would love to prohibit you from having any of these experiences that you might choose.

In 1982, the American Library Association, or ALA, recognized that many of the best books were being pulled from library shelves, not only in schools, but public libraries, as well.  Their astonishment and concern about censorship demanded they take action and they did, through the creation of their Office of Intellectual Freedom and the formation of Banned Books Week, which is September 24th through October 1st of every year.   Calling attention to the threat on free speech in America, the effort to educate the public and highlight books that are challenged and banned every year has become a national event, provoking many to pick up books that they would probably have never explored just because it had been placed on a challenge list.  Quite the opposite effect the censoring parties intended!

Many people, myself included, consider it a double-dog dare to read a book once it has been challenged or banned!  We automatically think “How dare they take it upon themselves to decide what is best for me!”  We are stunned when we read a news story, like the one last year, where The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was “sanitized” by taking out the word “Nigger Jim” and replacing it with “Slave Jim.”  What did this do to the statement Clements was trying to make with his novel?  Did it change the message?  Many people believe it did, while others believed that replacing the word opened the novel up to a whole new group of people who otherwise would not have read it.  You decide what you believe.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of the top banned books of this country.

 

To what end do we let those who would decide what is appropriate regulate what we consume in the printed word?  Communities decide upon standards of decency, which may or may not compel them to challenge or ban certain books from the shelves of their schools and libraries.  Books are challenged for varying reasons, but the most common reasons are profanity, violence, drug use, and sex/sexuality.  This past year, two of the most challenged books were extremely popular young adult literature that most of us are familiar with- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Twilight by Stephanie Myers.  The Hunger Games series is a trilogy about a futuristic society that annually forces a group of teens, two from each of it’s 12 districts, to fight to the death for the purposes of entertaining the Capital and intimidating the districts.  There is quite a bit of violence in the novels, but there would be no story without the violence.  It is essential to furthering the story.

So why is Banned Books Week a big deal?  Because it strikes at the core of who we are as Americans who value liberty.  The rights our forefathers had the insight to include in the Constitution guarantee authors the liberty to put their thoughts to paper without censorship from those who would restrict them, as well as giving us the right to consume these thoughts without restriction.  As our world changes, from paper to digital, even more intellectual content becomes available, which means even more distribution of a profusion of ideas and experiences to be found in stories and novels and poetry.  We must be diligent that these ideas are not censored by those who would like to purify our world to fit their definitions of propriety.

Some of the classic novels that are on banned books lists are To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee and Animal Farm by George Orwell and Call of the Wild by Jack London, all beloved classics that deserve a read.  You can find an extensive list of the most frequently banned and challenged books at the ALA website, www.ala.org and at the Banned Books Week website, www.bannedbooksweek.org.  The Banned books website is also featuring a “Read Out” this year, where individuals can upload videos of themselves reading aloud from banned books.  Find more info on their website about this activity and more.

 

So, what can you do, the average PBS reader, to commemorate Banned Books Week?  It’s simple!  Read a banned or challenged book today!  Celebrate your freedom to read what you choose!

 

Below are some Banned and/or Challenged Books from the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century

 

Fantasy Friday – Sword of the Lictor

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

Sword of the Lictor by Gene Wolfe

 

 

Review byBowden P. (Trey)

 

Sword of the Lictor was interesting, if only for some of the contrasts. The quiet of Severian wandering the sculpted mountains of the Andes and his time with his adopted son. And the conflicts with an ancient tyrant and then his one companion. Its also some very fine writing and makes me wonder how the Book of the New Sun will wrap up.

The novel opens with Severian and Dorcas in Thrax and Severian thriving in his new position. He’s reformed the local prison and carrying out his trade. Dorcas, however, isn’t doing as well. She’s no longer Severian’s council and aide there, and her memories are returning. This leads to her going missing with Severian seeking her out (and giving us the reader a walking tour of Thrax). After finding her and making sure she’s safe, Severian returns home. There, the archon asks him to a party and carry out a commission. Naturally, Severian assents.

At the party, he meets a woman who he thinks is a Pelerine (remember The Shadow of the Torturer?) and plans to give her the Claw. She thinks he’s a torturer in truth and faints. After she recovers, we get the Tale of the Library which gives us a very abstract view of the history of humanity and its expansion to the stars and how it came to its current state.

Of course, the woman he meets is his commission…

From there, its a tale of Severian the fugitive as he salves his conscience with the Claw and flees the city into the mountains.

And that is as far as I want to go. Even though the book is almost thirty years old, I don’t want to spoil it for new readers.

Its also notable for Severian being philosophical, whether its in his walking tour of Thrax, or as the captive of sorcerers before a magical duel. And for what its worth, as a fan of stage magic and sleight of hand, the capture and duel with the sorcerers was worth the price of admission alone.

The tale of “The Boy Called Frog” is also a wonderful confabulation of the myth Romulus and Remus and the Jungle Book, making me periodically wish that Wolfe had written children’s stories. I think if he had, he would have been great at it.

So, what makes it good? Severian is interesting, but not all that sympathetic. However, he is very human and aware of his faults, more so than most. That makes him unique. And for all his faults, he’s not that unlikable.

Another thing that makes it good is wondering what Wolfe will steal from, or twist a trope in an unique way. “The Boy Called Frog” is an excellent example of that. As are some of Severian’s confrontations with the past. Wolfe also plays with the reader’s expectations. When Dr. Talos opens a door for Severian, its a bit surprising. Finding out Dr. Talos’ role is even moreso, just as Severian’s conversation with the Cacogens reveals more about life at the end of history and their role in it.

In short, its a interesting well drawn character and a sense of discovery paired with a desire to see what happens next.

Likes: Severian, because he’s human; The walking tour of Thrax and Severian’s musings on people; Capture and magical duel; The final battle of Lake Diuturna; Wolfe’s confabulation of disparate myths and stories into something unique; His play with language and knowledge of history and cultures.

Dislikes: That for all of Severian’s humanity, he does get repetitive; Fate of Little Severian; Loss of Terminus Est.

Suggested for: Gene Wolfe fans, fans of the Dying Earth sub-genre, folks who like a challenging read.