June 2008

Booking Through Thursday

What, in your opinion, is the definition of a “reader.” A person who indiscriminately reads everything in sight? A person who reads BOOKS? A person who reads, period, no matter what it is? … Or, more specific? Like the specific person who’s reading something you wrote?

Like many others who responded, to me a person who reads anything is a reader. This means that almost everyone who watches TV here in Finland is a reader because they are almost certain to read the subtitles.

This time the story starts quite soon after the end of the previous book. The Emersons are coming back from the excavation from Darshoor when Amelia notices an article in the newspaper. Apparently a night watchman has died in the British Museum in front of a mummy exhibition and the journalists are calling it the curse of the mummy. That sort of writing makes Emerson furious and he forbids Amelia to investigate.

The Emersons arrive to London where they must stay for some time while Emerson tries to finish his book. Emerson’s brother and his wife are at the pier to welcome Amelia and her family to England but so is Amelia’s brother James whom Amelia hasn’t seen since her wedding. She suspects that James wants something and she’s correct: James is leaving because of business and her wife is ill so he wants the Emersons to look after his two children. Amelia agrees and James delivers them promptly to their London house.

The Emersons are practically molested by two intrepid reporters: an old acquaintance Kevin O’Connell and a new one, Miss Minton. Even though Amelia has some sisterly feelings toward her, despite her profession, Emerson is having a very difficult time working in this environment. The two children don’t get along with Ramses and Ramses ends up scuffling a lot with the boy Percy much to Amelia’s disappointment.

They spend a day at the British Museum and go to see the famous mummy case. They end up witnessing a bizarre incident where a man dressed up as an Egyptian Priest with a full face mask prays to the female mummy. Despite Emerson’s best efforts the priest escapes in the crowd. Soon, a man is found unquestionably murdered and in his hand is a note in Egyptian hieroglyphs so the press insists that the death is related to the death of the nigh watchman. Emerson is far from convinced but they start to investigate.

This is another book, much like the first in the series, where the mystery is playing a second fiddle to the relationships in the book. Amelia’s jealousy affects the investigation very much and so does Emerson’s behavior. The fights between the children, the personalities of the new (to us) servants and the other secondary characters provide most of the entertainment in the book. I don’t much care for jealousy-plots but I guess it had to be done. The London setting is interestingly different form the Egyptian one. All in all, another very entertaining read.

Booking Through Thursday

Think about your favorite authors, your favorite books . . . what is it about them that makes you love them above all the other authors you’ve read? The stories? The characters? The way they appear to relish the taste of words on the tongue? The way they’re unafraid to show the nitty-gritty of life? How they sweep you off to a new, distant place? What is it about those books and authors that makes them resonate with you in ways that other, perfectly good books and authors do not?

All of them write fantasy or science fiction, so a setting away from the ordinary modern life seems to be very important. Basically, I crave for adventure and excitement but I also want excellent characters. Not ones that I could identify with but ones that provide that excitement; characters who I can love or hate but who don’t leave me indifferent. Witty dialog is also if not a must then at least the icing on the cake.

I don’t really care for the dark-and-gritty fantasy that seems to be so popular today. It feels quite exhausting to read for me.

This trade has six individual stories and each of them has a different main character. They are connected by the setting: Astro City and some of the characters in them. Astro City is home to normal people, superheroes, and super villains. The villains are actually seen only a couple of times and then at a distance; they never rise to be the main point of a story.

In Dreams: the first story deals with the life of Astro City’s premier superhero, the Samaritan. He never has time to live when he has to rush from one emergency to the next in his solo hero career, battle villains as a member of the Honor Guard, and at the same time he’s trying to keep up a civilian identity as a fact verifier. There’s more than a slight resemblance to another, far more well-known superhero. But Samaritan is a more tortured character: he longs to have peace and to have a civilian life which he has no time for.

The Scoop: a veteran journalist who owns his own paper, the Astro City Rocket, tells about his first big story. He trails the Silver Agent and sees something extraordinary.

A Little Knowledge: a small-time crook stumbles upon the real identity of a superhero, Jack-in-the-Box. He thinks he can get a lot of money out of the secret.

Safeguards: Marta lives in the oldest part of the city where the inhabitants have to protect themselves every night with wolfsbane, crucifixes, and magical signs. She works in the city, however, and sees the heroes who inspire her. One of her colleagues needs a roommate and she has to make a decision about her life.

Reconnaissance: this is a story about a little old man who walks around gathering information about the heroes and seems to hate all people. But then there’s a fire in his house and his secrets are in danger of being exposed.

Dinner at Eight: two of Astro City’s most famous heroes get together for a date: Samaritan and Winged Victory. Both of them have been so busy that they are quite awkward at first and they go to a restaurant in their superhero identities but they are so swamped by autograph-hunters that they have to leave. They end up eating at a fast food place in their civilian identities. They tell each other their origins and about their ideologies.

I liked most Reconnaissance because I had no idea what to expect and the story came as a complete surprise. It was humorous and a bit tragic at the same time. Safeguards was another very good story. None of them were bad, either. I think that anyone who enjoys superhero stories would enjoy this trade, too.

However, I was expecting something a bit more unlike most superhero stories and these are very much in the spirit of Marvel and DC.

This is another detective story with magic in it. However, this time the protagonist, the Chief Investigator Lord Darcy, isn’t a sorcerer himself even though the world has widespread magic use.

The world is an alternate history with magic. The story itself is set in 1966. There is a brief alternate history lesson near the start of the book: apparently Richard the Lionheart didn’t die, he just had a very close call with death and after that he returned to England and became a good king. Magic was officially found somewhat later though. Also, the English were the first to arrive in Mexico (or Mechicoe as it is called here). In the story’s current time, the King rules an Anglo-French Empire and wages a sort of cold war toward the Polish Empire. The Church practices magic; in fact the healers seem to be mostly priests and the Church also issues licenses for using magic. There are also secular sorcerers who have an official schooling system. There are Master, Journeyman, and Apprentice sorcerers in the book. Even though women are able to become Journeymen and Apprentice sorcerers, none of the Masters are female. On the other hand, it wasn’t stated anywhere that women couldn’t became Masters, either.

All of the things that are done today by science seem to be done in this world by magic. Lord Darcy’s right hand man is Master Sean O Lochlainn who is the head forensics officer. But these people call magic science and there are doctoral degrees in thaumaturgy (magic). The spells seem to use psionic energy as their power source.

The story starts when a double agent for the Imperial Navy’s espionage branch is found murdered. He was a civilian and he had been on the verge of finding out a Polish spy. The local branch calls in Lord Darcy from London.

However, the rest of the story is set in London. During a sorcerers’ convention Master Sir James Zwinger has been murdered in a locked room. Naturally, the local authorities suspect that magic was used even though it’s hard to prove because Sir James was staying in the convention hotel. The multitude of privacy spells in place before the murder and especially after it make it hard to detect just one spell. However, the Marquis of London, who is Lord Darcy’s cousin and chief rival, considers the case clear after he finds out that Master Sean had a reason to be angry with the victim and that they had fought just before the murder. So, he throws Master Sean to jail. However, Lord Darcy doesn’t think that the case is quite that easy and manages to free his friend. But Lord Darcy is convinced that the murders of the double agent and Sir James have something in common and starts to investigate.

The world here is a fascinating glimpse into how a magic-rich society could work. There are some details which are left in the dark (just what is the difference between the Church and the secular sorcerers? Either in practice or in jurisdiction.) The world felt quite Victorian or Elizabethian to me but that could be because this is very much an upper class mystery: Sirs, Lords, Counts, Admirals, Masters everywhere. The characters were referred to in the text as My Lord the Marquis or His Grace which felt very old-fashioned.

The mystery was mysterious. At least I wasn’t able to guess where it would end up. The plot had quite a few twists and turns. I got a laugh out of Grand Master Sir Lyon Gandolphus Grey.

I’ve also got the short story collection: Murder and Magic, and I’ll probably read it soon.

Booking Through Thursday

A combo of two suggestions by: Heidi and by litlove

Have you ever been a member of a book club? How did your group choose (ot, if you haven’t been, what do you think is the best way to choose) the next book and who would lead discussion?

Do you feel more or less likely to appreciate books if you are obliged to read them for book groups rather than choosing them of your own free will? Does knowing they are going to be read as part of a group affect the reading experience?

I’ve participated in a few on-line book clubs. I love to discuss books and that’s easiest when I’m either reading it or have just read it. The book club in the Finnish Risingshadow forum discusses a book chapter by chapter while most others assume that the participants first read the whole book and then discuss about it.

All of the on-line book clubs I’ve been a part of select the book the same way: first a round of nominations by everyone who cares to comment and then a vote between the nominations. I have sometimes nominated a book but when the book that was selected was no interest to me, I didn’t get it nor did I of course participate in the discussion. The frustrating part about online book clubs is that so often I’ve never even heard of half of the nominees.

All of these book clubs have one designated person who opens the discussion. Usually s/he is a moderator but not always.

Hmm. I choose to be part of the club. Nobody can force me to get a book I don’t like. For example, it has now been over a year since I last took part in any book club. I check out the voted books every now and then but they don’t seem to be ones I’d have any interesting in reading. I think that if I were to be a part of a face-to-face book club it might be a different story. There I might be frustrated by the book choices.

Joining in book club discussion hasn’t affected my reading except I might take down a note or two about something I’d like to discuss.

I watched the short-lived TV-series based on this series, read praise for the series all over, and finally picked up the first book. This is the first book in the Dresden files-series.

Harry Dresden is the only freelance wizard in Chicago. He takes on almost any case which has something to do with magic or the supernatural but doesn’t do children parties. He’s also a consultant to the local police. His contact there is Lieutenant Karrin Murphy whom he has known long enough that they are comfortable with each other. Murphy is a bit of a skeptic but apparently she has seen enough to trust that there is such a thing as supernatural and that Harry knows something about it.

At the start of the book Harry is broke and when a customer calls he isn’t too choosy but agrees to help her find her husband even though Harry thinks that it’s likely to be a mundane case. Immediately afterwards, Murphy calls and Harry leaves to inspect two gruesomely killed corpses. A man and a woman were having sex and in the middle of it their chests had exploded. The man was a gangster enforcer and the woman a high-paid escort who worked for a vampire. According to Harry it would take a lot of magical power to kill like that and to do it without being in the room at the same time would be almost impossible. However, Murphy wants him to find out how the murder was done and Harry agrees a bit reluctantly.

On the way back to his office, he is “invited” to a ride by the enforcer’s boss, the local crime lord “Gentleman” Marcone. Marcone wants to hire Harry for a couple weeks during which time Harry would be on a vacation. They lock eyes and Harry sees into Marcone’s cold soul and doesn’t accept the offer. The gangster isn’t happy. Neither is Harry.

Monica, the woman who has a missing husband, tells that her husband had gotten involved with magic recently and that she suspects that the magic is it reason why he disappeared. Harry gets the address of their cottage by the lake and investigates that. Nobody is there but he wants to find out who had been there lately and so he summons a small fairy Toot-toot. He finds out that some people had been in the house a while ago. Then he is threatened by Morgan, his Warden. Summoning and binding sentient creatures is against the magical law and Morgan has been assigned to Harry to keep him in line because of some previous misdeeds. Harry talks himself out of the equivalent of arresting him but next he has to talk to the escort woman’s vampire boss who is convinced that Harry is the murderer. And of course, the powerful sorcerer who is really behind the whole thing isn’t going to leave Harry alone.

The world has some fascinating concepts such as the soul gaze where you can look into a wizard’s eyes and see his soul. The wizard sees your soul at the same time. While many people say that they don’t really believed it would happen, they avoid looking into a wizard’s eyes anyway. (Also, shouldn’t you avoid into looking any stranger’s eyes, just in case?) Harry uses his emotions to power his spells and even the potions. Power linked to a staff is just a classic as is the Third Eye. I was also highly amused by the concept that wizards and technology don’t get along. Too bad that was down-played in the TV-series.

I also liked the faery with the short memory and preference to pizza. Almost all of the characters in the book are quirky and entertaining. Murphy’s far more skeptical partner Carmichael is probably the most stereotypical of them and the reporter’s seductive attitude was quite predictable but they were all entertaining in their own way. While the mystery wasn’t very complex, it was also entertaining and had quite a few twists. The book is also quite funny.

The first-person-voice of Harry has humor and self directed sarcasm. It reminds me of Brust’s Vlad: both seem to be just as entertaining to read.

The Three plus one Musketeers adventure again in this book. It’s the first in a series of murder mysteries where the Musketeers solve murders.

The story starts with the famous duels between the Three Musketeers and D’Artagnan. The Cardinal’s guards interrupt them, the Musketeers defeat the guards, and the Musketeers and D’Artagnan become fast friends. Afterwards, they tell the story of the guards’ defeat to other Musketeers who wine and dine them. Later, they come out of a tavern drunk and see a Musketeer who doesn’t acknowledge them and in fact runs away. Infuriated by this boorish behavior, the Three Musketeers and D’Artagnan chase him until they find his body on the street and his throat slit. They also notice that he is a she who was just wearing a Musketeer uniform. She also looks exactly like the Queen of France, at least to the eyes of these men. They vow to find out her murderer no matter who it might be and no matter who she might be.

Athos finds an encrypted message on her sleeve but nothing else which might give a clue to who she might be or why she was murdered. So, the four split into two groups: Aramis and D’Artagnan go to the palace where one of Aramis’ friends, a seamstress, might know if the Queen is alive or if there is an imposter there. Porthos and Athos head toward Porthos’ mistress. One of her husband’s apprentices has a talent for solving encryptions.

Porthos and Athos climb into Athenais’ window and convince her to wake the young man, Planchet. Much to their disappointment the message lists just a time and place without anyone’s name. Poor Planchet lives as almost a prisoner in the house of the miserly attorney. Porthos frees him and agrees to recommend him as a servant to D’Artagnan.

Meanwhile, Aramis’ seamstress turns out to be his mistress the Duchess Violetta. She agrees to question the Queen to see if she really is the Queen. She is and the Musketeers are left with very little to go on with.

They agree to sleep on it but D’Artagnan (who has suddenly acquired a servant) is too restless to sleep. So, he decides to go alone to the address that was in the message.

It has been quite a few years since I read the Three Musketeers. Indeed, I have a clearer memories of some movies (Man in the Iron Mask and the various filmings of the Three Musketeers) and the animated series with dog characters than the original novel. Even so, it seems to me that D’Almeida has managed to capture the essence of the characters: the hot-tempered D’Artagnan, religious and soft-spoken Aramis, brooding and drinking Athos, and the loyal Porthos. I was also delighted to see that the various married mistresses of the characters have been included. Especially Violette has quite an important role to play in the book. Too often re-imaginings of the book smooth out the adultery which all of the characters, except for Athos, indulge in. It is, however, part of the atmosphere of the book and the times.

None of the characters seemed really flat and as far as I can tell, the historical setting is accurate. The point-of-view rotates between the four protagonists. The plot is fast: women masquerading as men, fast gallops through the night, duels, and conspiracies abound. However, the ending fell a bit flat because of the villain’s motivations.

I’d also love to see what the writer could do with original characters. Maybe even in the same setting with the Three (plus one) Musketeers as cameos.

Booking Through Thursday

Have your book-tastes changed over the years? More fiction? Less? Books that are darker and more serious? Lighter and more frivolous? Challenging? Easy? How-to books over novels? Mysteries over Romance?

Of course. When I was a child I read kids’ books and I guess books that could be classified as YA: The Three Detectives, Nancy Drew, lots of horse books, and non-fiction about dogs and horses. Around 5th or 6th grade (at the age of 11 or 12) I discovered role-playing and fantasy books and haven’t looked back. Now, I had of course read fairy tales and kids’ books which could be seen as fantasy: the Moomin, Pippi Longstockings etc but I hadn’t realized that there’s a whole genre of fantasy.

Much like many other teens I started with the role playing fantasy books: R. A. Salvatore’s Drizzt book were a particular favorite as were the Dragonlance Chronicles. I was in an epic fantasy kick for quite a few years and read almost nothing else. I tried some science fiction, too, but it was written so exclusively to male readers that even at just a young age I didn’t like to be overlooked. This was the time when I started to read in English, too. Forgotten Realms books to be specific. Then Star Trek: the Next Generation books.

Now, some five years ago I was burned out on epic fantasy and was delighted to find New Weird and historical fiction. I had found Neil Gaiman before but hadn’t realized that there was a whole genre of somewhat similar books. (Really, it’s hard to find similarity between Gaiman and, say, VanderMeer even though they are often lumped together in the same subgenre).

About a year ago I started to get interested in mystery and detective fiction. Now, I read historical mystery, science fiction, and fantasy. I’ve watched with interest the rise of Urban Fantasy and intend to sample the best books there.

In comics front my tastes haven’t really changed. I loved the classic Claremont run in the X-Men and the classic Avengers stories. I don’t really like the direction they’ve been taken in the recent years; Avengers with all of the Disassembled and dark and gritty nonsense and X-Men with rather repetitive and tired story lines. When I heard that Spider-Man had been revamped to a bachelor again I promptly stopped reading it. If you want to return to some co-called golden age of Spidey, do an AU version! The last good run of Avengers was when Kurt Busiek was writing it.

Ever since I got my hands on Sandman and Elfquest, I’ve loved them both and reread the every couple of years. Fables is the newest of my comics-loves and it’s not so dark or gritty. So, I guess I want my comics more lighthearted than what I tend to see these days.

Oh and of course I read more non-fiction when I was in the university. I think I still have some backlash to that since these days I tend to read almost exclusively fiction.

The second in the writing order and the third book in the internal chronological order in the Vlad Taltos series.

Yendi is a very short book and mostly filled by a convoluted plot which isn’t exposed until at the very end. Vlad spends most of his time trying to stay alive from assassination attempts and trying to make sense from everything.

Vlad finds that Laris, one of the other crime bosses, is trying to muscle into his area. Vlad isn’t going to just give in so he tries to prepare for a conflict. However, Laris has apparently studied Vlad and his area, and so Laris manages to deal quickly a crippling blow to Vlad’s organization. However, Vlad manages to find a creative way to get more money: he has a short talk with Morrolan. Even though as a Dragon Morrolan can’t officially finance a Jhereg warfare, Vlad does get a sizable purse with him. Later, Kiera the Thief gives Vlad a flawless diamond.

When he doesn’t have to really worry about money Vlad, secures his positions and digs in expecting a long war. However, he and Laris start to use such overt measures that the Empress herself can’t help but to get involved and soon the Phoenix guards are all over that part of the city of Adrilankha. The Jhereg quiet down for a while. Vlad survives an assassination attempt and then has to face the Sword and Dagger of Jhereg, the only two female assassins in the city. And he is killed. However, Aliera e’Kieron brings him back to life and back to dealing with Laris who might not be power behind all of Vlad’s troubles.

Yendi is another of the Dragaeran noble houses. Their reputation is that they are devious and love to plot just for the sake of plotting. And so in the spirit of the House, the plot is also devious and full of twists.

All of Brust’s characters are delightful in some way. Morrolan and Aliera are stubborn, quick to take offence, and bicker like an old married couple (or some siblings) all the time. Vlad is quick-witted and ironic. His aide Kragar is more somber but has a sense of humor of his own, which admittedly was shown more in Dragon than Yendi. Sethra is Sethra. None of them are truly sane but who really is.

In fact, alongside these wonderful characters Cawti seems a bit dull. I also found it very convenient that even though Jhereg don’t have (or don’t allow?) female assassins Cawti is one. Riiiight. It’s not really distracting when I read the books but when I try to describe them it does seem a bit too cute. Of course, readers would have likely hated “a civilian” damsel in a distress character as Vlad’s wife (I know I would have and that would have changed the tone of the books a lot) so some sort of fighter or thief was the only logical choice

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