February 2008

Booking Through Thursday
Who is your favorite female lead character? And why? (And yes, of course, you can name more than one . . . I always have trouble narrowing down these things to one name, why should I force you to?)

I’ve got quite a few of them: on fantasy side there is Anne Logston’s Shadow: an elven thief who lives for the moment and doesn’t have a care in the world except when her friends are in trouble.

Aeryn from Robin McKinley’s “the Hero and the Crown”. I guess she would now be described as a typical heroine: during the book she grows from a withdrawn and ridiculed girl to a dragonslayer and finally to a hero who saves her entire kingdom.

While Steven Brust’s Vlad books have more than a few admirable women, none of them are the lead character. However, in the latter books of the Khaavren Romances at least one of the women from the Vlad book can be seen as rising to an almost lead status: Sethra Lavode; the mysterious Enchantress of the Dzur Mountain, a vampire, a mage, a general, a warrior, and often said to be one of the most dangerous beings in the Dragaeran world.

On the sci-fi side there’s Cordelia Naismith from the omnibus Cordelia’s Honor who one of my favourite characters ever. She an explorer, a Captain on an Betan Astronomical Survey ship. Sadly, she’s only a minor character during the rest of Bujold’s Vorkosigan series.

In comics there’s Death from Gaiman’s Sandman although technically she, too, isn’t the lead character but one of the significant minor characters. She does have two albums of her own, though.

Elfquest has several admirable women and they are part of the ensemble cast. My favourites are probably Leetah and Nightfall. Leetah is at a first glance a rather typical gentle woman: a healer who become a wife (a lifemate) and a mother. However, she isn’t afraid to stand for herself and defend her loved ones. Nightfall seems to be the opposite of Leetah: a fierce warrior and hunter. But she’s also a woman who wants to have children with her mate and is fiercely loyal to her family and tribe. You could even see Leetah and Nightfall as mirror images of each other: warrior Nightfall married to a gentle, non-warrior man and gentle healer Leetah married to a fierce warrior man. Yet they are the best of friends.

Other comics don’t really have lead women unless you count ensemble casts such as the Avengers or X-Men.

Edited to add: How could I have forgotten Temperance Brennan from the tv-show Bones? Her alter ego in the Kathy Reichs books is quite a bit different character: older, more experience and, alas, missing the social akwardness that I find so appealing in the tv-Brennan. Also, my all-time favourite Star Trek female is Jadzia Dax who is really one of the most appealing female characters ever (for me).

This is also a first in a series: the Jonathan Argyll novels and they have a secondary title: the Art Mysteries. This first one centers on a newly found Raphael’s painting.

The main character of the books is Generale Taddeo Bottando who is the chief of Rome’s National Art Theft Squad. The point of view characters include her main aide Flavia di Stefano and the English art historian and post-grad student Jonathan Argyll.

Argyll has managed to trace down Raphael’s lost painting. People were trying to smuggle it out of Italy in the 17th century by painting another picture on it but due to a mix-up the original Raphael was never found. Argyll is caught when he tries to break into a church where the painting is supposed to be. Bottando is, understandably, skeptical but Argyll’s research manages to convince him. However, the painting was recently sold to famous art dealer Sir Edward Byrnes. Byrnes manages to recover the Raphael and it is then sold from a huge sum to the Italian government. Agryll and Bottando smell a rat but don’t know why or what to do about it. Soon, during a big party with a lot of celebrities and influential people, the painting is burned and man is found dead.

The first half of the book is just a warm-up for a more ordinary mystery story. The first half is also very heavily plot-driven and is written mostly in a telling way because the main characters are side-liners for the international show that is the revealing of the new Raphael.

There are a lot of intriguing facts about international art thefts and swindlings through out the centuries and it doesn’t feel like it’s forced. However, the characters remain a little flat and the change between POV characters is sometimes abrupt.

But it’s still an interesting little book and I’ll likely try out next in the series.

This is the first in a series of modern mysteries starring Lydia Chin and Bill Smith. It’s quite an impressive first book. 

The main character is Lydia Chin, or Chin Ling Wan-ju which is her Chinese name, a Chinese-American woman private investigator in New York. She lives and operates mostly in Chinatown. This is not her first case; she has worked for six years in her profession. Even though she operates officially alone, she often teams up with a white American man, Bill Smith. They have mostly a professional relationship but Bill flirts a lot with Lydia and he seems to be rather taken with her.

The case starts when Lydia accepts an assignment from a local museum, Chinatown Pride. Someone has stolen two boxes worth of Chinese porcelains which have been just acquired for the museum. They are part of a large collection which used to belong to a hermit-like collector Mr. Blair and his widow has just given the collection to the museum. The museum’s curator, Nora Yin, is one of Lydia‘s childhood friends and the museum’s lawyer is one of Lydia’s four brothers so Lydia has a lot of reasons to accept the case even though her brother is clearly against it.

Lydia‘s and Bill’s suspicions turn quickly to the local gang, the Golden Dragons, who really do not want anyone to look into their business. However, the case is much more complicated than they thought is would be. It has quite a few twists and turns.

The book has a very intriguing atmosphere. I’ve never been to New York or the Chinatown but it seems genuine to me. There is a lot of noise and lots of people and a lot of different kinds of tea. Lydia still lives with her mother who talks constantly about find a husband for her and being ashamed of her livelihood. Her mother also dotes on her sons, who all live on their own, two of them with their families. Lydia seems to like two of her brothers and not the other two. Her brother who is Chinatown Pride’s lawyer constantly shows that he doesn’t have any faith in Lydia’s abilities. Even though she’s 28 the family treats her like she’s twelve. The family dynamic is quite complex and I was impressed by it. Lydia also has a female best friend: Mary Kee who is a police detective and her mother is also ashamed of her daughter’s profession. Mary and Lydia talk mostly about the case. 

All of the characters come across as people with the possible exception of Bill Smith who remains quite a stereotypical male American P.I. in addition to being rather protective of Lydia. Most of the characters are Chinese-American. I found their culture and attitudes to be fascinatingly different from the typical white American characters. The police are also quite effective unlike in most P.I. books.

The next book will be from the POV of Bill Smith and I’m curious to see how the writer will portray Lydia and the Chinatown from his perspective.

Booking Through Thursday

All other things (like price and storage space) being equal, given a choice in a perfect world, would you rather have paperbacks in your library? Or hardcovers? And why?

At first I tought that I’d like my books to be in the format that they are mostly in now: paperbacks. However, what I’d really like is to have most of them in e-books and audiobooks. E-books would take lost less space and also would be easier on my back when I move next time. There are some books which I’d love to listen to but aren’t available in the audio format.

Another review: Steven James’the Pawn.

A thriller which I gave four and a half stars from five.

The book starts shortly after the Star Trek: the First Contact when Picard is looking at the casualty list from the fight with Borg after the ship returned back to the future. One of the names is Lieutenant Hawk’s and Picard is remembering a mission about six months before the movie. Unfortunately, he isn’t the only POV character, indeed there are quite a few POV characters, so the flashback-thing doesn’t really work.

The first POV character is Captain Blaylock whose ship the Slayton is going to the planet Chiaron IV who is having in a referendum about whether to join the Federation or the Romulan Star Empire. The planet’s current government is in favor of the Federation but there is a rebel faction which is against Federation and against any outside force, for that matter. However, the Slayton has noticed some weird subspace interference and goes to investigate. First, they send a shuttle full of people for the diplomatic mission to the planet. Soon, the Slayton is destroyed. However, because of the ionization of the Chiaron IV’s athmosphere the shuttle’s personnel doesn’t know it and they are soon kidnapped by the rebels who take them to their invisible base and keep them locked up. This part is seen from the POV of Commander Cortin Zweller who is one of Jean-Luc Picard’s oldest friends and Section 31’s agent with a mission to see that the Romulans get the planet.

So, the Slayton is missing and the Federation is sending a skilled diplomat to oversee the referendum and to unite the Chiarosan government and the rebels. The Enterprise is sent to ferry the telepathic Ullian Ambassador Aubin Tabor and Vice-Admiral Marta Batanides. Batanides is also a very old friend of Picard’s and they haven’t seen each other since they got separate assignments after the Academy. She’s also involved with the Ambassador. The Ambassador is also an agent of Section 31 who is there to see that the Romulans get the planet. The Ambassador wants an agent aboard the Enterprise so he approaches Lieutenant Hawk. Hawk listens his pitch but isn’t completely convinced.

The Ambassador, Picard, Troi, Riker, and Data go to the planet for a meeting set up between the government’s leaders and the rebels. However, things escalate to violence where the Ambassador is stabbed and Riker and Troi are kidnapped by the rebels. Shortly afterwards, the Enterprise notices the weird subspace readings and is rocked by a strong shockwave. It seems that the space around Chiaron IV isn’t as desolate as the Federation thinks.

The characters are rendered pretty well but unfortunately the story itself is pretty average. On top of that, the officers behave against known Starfleet regulations such as letting the Captain to actually do something ;).

Of yeah, there seemed to be a huge outcry over the fact the Lieutenant Hawk is gay. Yup, he’s in a stable relationship with a Trill who happens to be male. Some reviews seem to complain that the scenes between the pair were too explicit. Umm, what? They don’t even kiss on the mouth. There are just a few, very short scenes where they talk and even (gasp!) hug twice. Completely ordinary scenes for a pair bonded people. I would rather complain that they are too short and therefore too quick for real character development. Of course, because all of the major characters in every ST version have been work-a-holic singles (with the exception of the three DS9 pairs and even their family life was only shown when it was in trouble or when one of the pair was in trouble) it might just be that Trek readers just aren’t used reading about any kind of stable relationships. At all.

But otherwise, this book was fairly average with too many POV characters. In addition to Picard, Blaylock, and Zweller, there is Hawk, Batanides, a couple of Romulans, Data, and a couple of others.

This is the first in a classic fantasy series. To me, the Amber is even more special because when I read it for the first time over a decade ago, I realized for the first time that fantasy doesn’t have to be medieval but, you know, fantastic.  And so it was quite an honor to start translating it into Finnish.

The first person narrator wakes up in a hospital without any memory of who he is or how he got there. However, soon enough he notices that the staff is trying to keep him sedated. He manages to avoid getting another shot and makes his way to an office where he manages to threaten a doctor to tell him the name and address of his “benefactor” who turns out to be his sister. His own name turns out to be Corey. However, he has not recollection of having a sister. He escapes and makes his way to his sister’s house. There he does recognize her as his sister although not with the name she gives him. There they engage in a weird chess-like discussion when he tries to find out who he is and who his increasingly weird sounding family are. Practically the only thing he remembers is that he knows a lot about anatomy and medicine but he isn’t a doctor and that he remember the name “Amber” even though he doesn’t know who or what that is.

Eventually, he receives a phone call from his brother Random who is being chased by some tough-sounding guys. Random arrives but soon his followers arrive, too. Corey and Random fight quite surreally the non-human guys in her living room. Corey is quite puzzled but still doesn’t want to reveal that to his family. After they win the battle, Corey and Random try to make their way to Amber. Corey drives and Random does something to chance their scenery to weirder and weirder versions of Earth. Corey remembers bits and pieces but now much. Such as that his family is Not Nice and that he should know what is going on. 

Eventually, they rescue their other sister Deirdre and find out that their brother Eric wants to keep them all out of the city of Amber. Random suggests a way to restore Corey’s memory but it’s, of course, dangerous. And the people who chase them are also dangerous.

The Nine Princes of Amber is fast-paces and a real feast of imagination. I wouldn’t have minded if they had explored the alternative Earths some more. I was also a bit surprised by how easily Corey trusts the lead of Random even though he thinks all the time that he shouldn’t. The characters are quite memorable and distinct especially for such a short book. I was a bit disappointed by the treatment of the female characters, though. The sisters weren’t even considered as possible rulers even though they had the same knowledge and skills as their brothers. Instead they were just assigned roles as either helpers or eye candy.

But Amber remains still one of my personal favorite series just because of Zelazny’s imagination.

This time Pratchett parodies Hollywood and the many mores surrounding it.

The book starts when the last of the guardians of the otherworldly Holy Wood dies without a successor. So the sort-of-magical effects of Holy Wood start to seep though Ank-Morpork ensnaring unsuspecting people’s dreams and replacing them with Holy Wood’s own dreams of celebrity. Holy Wood puts its dreams and desires into the minds of the Alchemists who mostly think that they themselves have invented how to do films. They set out to build the town of Holy Wood to film their movies.

The book has a new hero, a long-time wizard pupil Victor Tugelbend, who sneaks out of the Unseen University and is quickly ensnared by the dreams of Holy Wood. He walks to the nearby new town where other people are building the facades of Holy Wood and is quickly recruited as an actor. He meets the heroine, an actress called Ginger who is also trying to make a career in film. Mostly by accident, they rise to be big stars. They’re careers are helped by the megalomaniacal plans of Cut-me-own-throat Dibbler who has abandoned the sausage industry and is trying to become the biggest director in Discworld with the help of his nephew Soll. The talking Wonderdog Gaspode has also a large part to play in the lives of Victor and Ginger as well as in the book. There are also very funny troll and wizard characters in the book.

I happen to think that this is one the better Pratchett books that I’ve read*. Granted, you need some knowledge of movies but I think most people would have that. And the scene that parodied King Kong near the end was absolutely hilarious!

Once again, I read a Finnish translation. The translation was mostly good but for some reason the translations seem to me to be less funny that the originals. Now, it’s completely possible that I’ve just managed to read Pratchett books which aren’t uproariously funny (in fact I’m convinced that the Colour of Magic and Light Fantastic aren’t hilariously funny but more like a light-chuckle-here-and-there-funny**). However, this time around the problem was somewhat the translation. The names of the producing companies were translated, whereas their real-life counterparts aren’t so it took me some time and back-translation to figure them out. Same with some of the names of the films. I wasn’t even aware that Gone with the Wind had a Finnish name.

Now, I realize (from personal experience with non-fiction translations) that when the translator is paid barely enough to buy food and rent and given a very strict deadline, they can’t really think about every word choice. What I’m wondering is: clearly Pratchett’s books sell well because the same company has translated 21 of the Discworld books and a handful of the others. So for the love of any divine power, WHY can’t they give the poor guy enough time and money to translate the books properly? I have a few translated books to go but if they aren’t better, I’m going to switch into the original English.

*Except that it didn’t have enough footnotes.

**And yes, at the time I read it, I’ve read enough REH, Leiber, McCaffrey et al to get the references.

Booking Through Thursday

Have you ever fallen out of love with a favorite author? Was the last book you read by the author so bad, you broke up with them and haven’t read their work since? Could they ever lure you back?

I was going to say that this haven’t happenend to me but it has, sort of. One of my favourite authors is Lois McMaster Bujold: I adore the space opera Vorkosigan saga, I like a lot her fantasy Chalion books, but I just couldn’t get exited about the Sharing Knife books. Mostly, it’s because they are really a couple of romance books set in a fantasy setting and I don’t really care for the start of a romance* as the main “plot” and the age difference between the two characters was just too much for me. However, I haven’t abandoned Bujold. The books were otherwise well written and I have high hopes that the next book will be even better for me because the previous “romancers” should be now an established couple and I generally enjoy reading about those.

Of course, I’ve been disappointed before by authors but I don’t really think of those as the author becoming worse but me become more discerning reader. Eddings and Salvatore pop to mind as those writers where I just suddenly realized that I’ve outgrown their stuff. I’m not going read them anymore.

*which is apparently today the end-all and be-all of romance. Even though I should know better I can’t help but to wonder what sort of relationships the poor authors are/were in or maybe their poor SOs…

This is the first in Sayers’ classic detective novels starring Lord Peter Wimsey. In this book we are introduced to Lord Peter himself, his rather pushy manservant Bunter, and his friend detective Parker. The book has rather more complex plot than is usual for mysteries because there are two mysteries to solve: a man’s naked body has appeared into the bathtub of a meek architecht who doesn’t know the man and a well-known financier has disappeared from his home. Lord Peter starts to investigate the former and Parker starts to investigate the latter. The police inspector Sugg is convinced that the body in the bathtub is the body of the Jewish financier but Lord Peter doesn’t agree. However, soon Lord Peter whimsically decides that they should switch the investigations. Parker agrees but soon Lord Peter starts to see that the cases are connected somehow.

The book is a short and light read full of eccentric characters and plot twists. But it was a good read and I’m looking forward to the next one. However, that’s going to be a bit more difficult to get. Apparently there’s only one copy of it in the libraries in this county. And the English soft covers have been sold out right now. I guess I’ll have to wait for the library copy to come through.

I read the Finnish translation which was translated in 1960s and it showed! Mr. and Mrs. were left in the text instead of translated to herra and rouva. For some reason a coroner was the person who interrogated the witnesses during the trial. And his title wasn’t translated but was left in the text in English.

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