book reviews by Althea

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The Dragon Keeper – Robin Hobb ****

(Rain Wild Chronicles #1)

Yay! The Rain Wilds are back!
This book takes up the story following the Liveship Traders trilogy.
I have to say, the introduction to the story was done masterfully. You know how some authors start a series, and the first chapter or so is an awkward reiteration of “what already happened?”
Well, this does that – and it needs it, because, seriously, it’s been twelve years since the Liveship Traders trilogy finished (!), and I could use the reminder. But it doesn’t feel forced or awkward at all. I was impressed.
The story focuses on the return of the endangered dragons to the Rain Wilds, and a number of people who are caught up with the dragons’ fate. The reality of the dragons is not the glorious thing that many hoped it would be: politics and finance play a significant role.
Among the main characters: Alise, a smart but naive young woman who finds herself in a loveless marriage (as to why it’s loveless: duh, is anyone that naive!?) and focuses her energy on scholarship – anything to do with dragons. Thymara: a young girl, physically mutated. According to Rain Wilds custom, she should have been exposed at birth, but her loving father saved her. Leftrin: a barge captain, who steals the now-forbidden wizardwood for his liveship…
Overall, the book is really good. It’s not the best in this lengthy epic, and it takes a little bit to get going, but it’s very enjoyable.


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Unicorn and Dragon – Lynn Abbey ***

OK historical fiction with a pagan/psychic element. I have to admit I picked it up due to the lovely Robert Gould cover.
The book is also supposed to be ‘illustrated’ by Robert Gould, but don’t buy this because of that: this edition, at least, has the very worst printing quality I’ve ever seen in a book, and most of the ‘illustrations’ are indistinguishable masses of grey dots.

The story: set in 11th-century Britain, two ‘sisters.’ Allison is blond, beautiful, legitimate and not only that, heir to secret pagan powers, including the ability to influence others’ minds. Wildecent is dark, unassuming, and seemingly without any remarkable powers. She’s also not Allison’s true sister – was she kidnapped? Adopted?
Into their manor house comes a young man, rescued from both wolves and outlaws. Since they don’t get to see new people too often in their sheltered life, it’s not unbelievable that both women develop crushes on him. Conflict and jealousy ensues, mixed in with magic and political conflict between Anglo-Saxon and Norman factions.

Not bad; there’s a sequel which I may pick up one of these days. It has a little bit of a Mists-of-Avalon feel to it.

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The Mongoliad, Book One – Neal Stephenson (et. al.) ***

In the interest of being a Neal Stephenson completist, I had to read this.
However, I had doubts about the whole novel-by-committee concept and, sadly, I felt that those doubts were justified.
The concept of the novel was good – it’s got an interesting historical setting, a good mix of different types of characters, some action, some drama… I’m sure it all looked very good on paper. And, it’s not actually bad. It’s just not great.
The characters never fully come to life – I felt like they’d work in a movie, but a novel really requires more depth.
The transitions between chapters felt a little disjointed,as well.

I’m not saying I won’t read the next volume… but I’m not making it a priority. Stephenson-managing-a-group is not as good as Stephenson-on-his-own.

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Crossed Bones – Jane Johnson ***

A romance/adventure of a girl from Cornwall who is abducted straight from her church by Barbary pirates, and sold into slavery.
This book was published as ‘The Tenth Gift’ but I read an ARC which still had the ‘Crossed Bones’ title on it, and I’m putting my review here because, seriously, I never would have picked it up with the ‘Tenth Gift’ title on it. Is there even a ‘tenth gift’ in the story? I don’t think so! I want to hear about Pirates!
Anyway, the book is vivid and well-researched. Apparently, the story was inspired by a family legend that a member of the author’s family was kidnapped by pirates, and during her research trip to Morocco, the author fell in love with and married a local man. Her love of Morocco comes through loud and clear – too loud, in fact.
The string of unbelievable events and portrayals includes too many things that are solely the province of romance novels; not reality (and this is, at heart, a romance novel.) Too many aspects of the story are quickly whitewashed over. Even if the main character was treated better than the other slaves due to her skill at embroidery – really, you think she’s going to forgive and fall in love with the man who caused her family & friends to die in torturous conditions? Sure, Stockholm Syndrome exists, but the way it’s treated here is all lovey-dovey and happy, and I can’t help going, “uh, what? really?” I suppose there is a faint chance that life as a female slave in Morocco might have been better than life as a free woman in 17th-century England… but if you’re gonna try to convince me of that, you’re going to have to convince a bit harder.

Oh! I almost forgot to mention anything about the modern-day, ‘framing’ story, which has to do with a modern woman finding the 17th-century woman’s diary, which was given to her accidentally as a parting gift by her friend’s husband, with whom she has been having an affair… He turns out to be a frighteningly huge jerk, but all-in-all, the present-day portion of the book is sort of boring and forgettable. I do love connecting antique items (like the book, and a panel of embroidery) to the stories of the past, but really, the 17th-century story is the one you’re reading this for.

Oh!! I also forgot about the haunty-ghosty part at the end. That was just dumb, and should have been removed.

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Watch Your Mouth – Daniel Handler ****

At first, I had mixed feelings about this.
At times, I felt that the over-the-top content was very… collegiate. As in, it reminded me of work that was presented in some of my college writing classes: young people trying to see how far they can push things.
There are also a jarring difference between Part 1 & Part 2, to the point where it almost felt disconnected.

In the end though, and after thought, I decided this book deserved 4 stars. It succeeded where work in the aforementioned writing classes did not. The ‘shocking’ content is not merely gratuitous (as it seems at first), it functions in the context of creating an ambiguous study of family relations, love, and Jewish mythology. Oh yes, and murder. Magical realism or madness? You decide.

Still, I do understand, after reading this, why Handler decided to publish his books for younger readers under a different name.
Recommended for fans of Iain Banks’ ‘The Wasp Factory.’

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Death’s Excellent Vacation – Charlaine Harris ***

As you might guess from the title, this anthology is very, very light vacation reading for fans of the supernatural. Bring it when you’re planning on sitting on the beach with a short attention span.
As it lets you know, right smack on the cover, there’s a Sookie Stackhouse story for the True Blood fans. Of the others, I thought that Daniel Stashower’s “Meanwhile, Far Across the Caspian Sea…” and A. Lee Martinez’ “The Innsmouth Nook” were the real standouts. Both are humorous writing – which I often find falls flat. But these are really funny – the first is set in a publishing house, and as you might guess from the title, the second sends up Lovecraft.
Nothing else in the book really impressed me enough to make me want to go find more work by the authors.

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The Heldan – Deborah Talmadge-Bickmore **

Read this because I have a goal to read all of the Del Rey Discovery books. Some of them are very, very good. This one, however, is not.
It reminded me of a not-as-good, much shorter version of Kate Elliott’s Jaran. (This was published two years later.) The stories aren’t that similar, but the mix of romance and fantasy gives it a similar feel. However, Jaran’s romance won me over. The romance here didn’t work for me at all. The people who fell for each other did so out of the blue; I didn’t feel their attraction at all. In the case of one couple, it was completely mystifying – in one chapter you see the guy completely abusing and humiliating the woman, she hates him, and in the next chapter they’re a couple. Huh?
The main relationship in the story wasn’t much better.
The main character, Senea, is somewhat befuddling as well. She seems pretty ordinary – but everyone she meets either instantly hates her or loves her. Why? The emotions in this book, overall, just don’t work.
The plot felt pretty typical – young village woman is recruited into an elite-but-feared caste of warriors. Each walled town in this area has a cadre of warriors who are in conflict with one another but aren’t allowed to communicate with each other in any way. The lead warrior (and romantic interest) wants to either make peace or discover forgotten magical secrets that will allow his group a military advantage; unfortunately there is dissension within the ranks.
The setup didn’t really make much sense – there wasn’t enough background to convince me or explain how the peculiar social system described came into place.