book reviews by Althea

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The Miserable Mill – Lemony Snicket ***

(A Series of Unfortunate Events #4)

Last one for 2012! (A quick one sneaking in under the radar… much like Count Olaf keeps sneaking after the Baudelaire children).

This one sees the children forced to work in an absurdly horrific sawmill. Their new guardian is the cruel and mysterious owner of the mill; his partner is almost kindly, but utterly ineffectual.
When the evil count Olaf (in disguise, yet again) teams up with a hypnotist/optometrist, and giant saws are in evidence – well, things are bound to get messy.


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Slow Chocolate Autopsy – Iain Sinclair *

I picked this up for the Dave McKean illustrations – I’d never heard of the author.
Well, I read through page 50 (the first three stories), and looked at all the illustrations.
This just isn’t my kind of thing. I guess I’d call it ‘British Weird’ or something of the sort. The writing seems deliberately unanchored and incoherent, with themes of seedy underworlds and violence running through it. The stories are linked by having a character named ‘Norton,’ but that seems like a post-hoc device to tie them together.

Maybe it just isn’t suiting my mood at the moment, but what I read didn’t catch my attention, and from flipping ahead, the rest looks like more of the same. I don’t feel like slogging through the remaining 140 pages…

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The Moon and the Sun – Vonda N. McIntyre ****

For quite a while, I was convinced I’d already read this book – but then I realized I’d confused it title-wise, with Patricia McKillip’s “The Moon and the Face.” Not the same book at all.

Here, we are thrown into the court of Louis XIV. Our protagonist, Marie-Josephe, is a very low-ranking member of this court, an absurdly sheltered girl, straight from a hellish stint in a convent. However, she’s scholarly and intelligent by nature, and is more than enthusiastic to assist her brother, a priest and naturalist, in the task sponsored by the King himself: an expedition to capture, display and dissect sea monsters. Sea monsters are rare, already hunted nigh to extinction, as legend has it that eating their flesh will confer immortality.
The priest has succeeded in capturing two of the monsters – one dead, one alive. Marie-Josephe is given the task of feeding the living monster, a female. She balances these duties with the demands of the court, and her growing moral discomfort regarding her slave and childhood companion, the Turkish woman known as Odelette. As she becomes familiar with the captive ‘monster,’ she begins to realize that the mermaid is just as human as herself.

The book starts rather slowly and confusingly. I rarely have to refer to a list of ‘dramatis personae,’ but I did find myself consulting the one provided here. However, it really picked up as it went on, and the novel’s themes emerged. The narrative grew into a powerful  and complex musing on freedom, oppression, and the nature of humanity.

* It reminded me quite a bit of the short story I read recently: Miss Carstairs and the Merman – Delia Sherman.

* It also features a much-shorter-than-average noble who excels at court politics, for the Tyrion Lannister fans. (Lucien’s a bit nicer than Tyrion, though.)

[note 9/7/14 – I just found out a movie is in production, based on this novel. I very much doubt they’ll capture either the atmosphere or the complexities… but, we shall see! ]

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The Wide Window – Lemony Snicket ***

(A Series of Unfortunate Events #3)

In this ‘chapter’ of the story, the Baudelaire orphans are sent to live with a paranoid aunt who lives in a house precariously perched on a cliff over a lake. Naturally, the evil Count Olaf is still after their fortune, and the trepidatious Aunt Josephine is not likely to get her act together to protect them from anything. If they get out of this mess, it’ll be through their own resourcefulness; as usual.

OK, at this point I’ve decided I’ll read all of these.

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Lady of Sherwood – Jennifer Roberson ***

The sequel to Roberson’s “Lady of the Forest,” her retelling of the Robin Hood legend.
I enjoyed the first one enough to pick this one up… though the first one pretty much seemed to have it covered; as far as the original story. Where was she going to go from there?
The outlaws were pardoned by the king himself, Marian had inherited her manor house and was living in bliss with Robin, everything was going well and all our heroes were seemingly enjoying their happy ending.

Well – King John bites it, refusing to name an heir, leaving the land in a state of unrest. The nasty Sheriff of Nottingham takes this opportunity to rescind the pardon and persecute Marian; threatening to take all her property and execute all of her friends.

So – we’re basically back to square one, and we can re-run the story… while there’s a bit of a sense of deja vu, it’s still enjoyably written, and recommended for any fans of the Robin Hood legends…

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A Sudden Wild Magic – Diana Wynne Jones ***

One of Diana Wynne Jones’ more ‘adult’ books, but one that will appeal to her fans in general, with its mix of homey appeal, warm humor, fast-paced action and serious themes.
The Earth We Know (or at least, an Earth very similar to ours) is secretly watched over by a ring of magical adepts. To their dismay, they discover that a neighboring universe has been messing with us – causing all sorts of disasters, apparently in the hopes that they’ll learn useful knowledge by studying how we deal with each catastrophe.
In a desperate move, the adepts cobble together a hasty expedition to try to infiltrate the other universe and foil their nefarious plans… but nothing works out quite as expected, on either end.

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Luck in The Shadows – Lynn Flewelling ***

(Nightrunner #1)

I’d heard good things about this series, so thought I’d pick this up. It’s fairly standard fantasy fare – a young orphan falls in with a mentor who initiates him into an exciting world of  thievery and spycraft, getting him involved with plots that stretch from seedy taverns to the highest levels of politics.
You may have heard (I did) this recommended for fans of gay fiction. If you’re looking for erotica, or even romance, look elsewhere, because there is no more than a flickering of sexual tension between the two leads.
The writing is fairly standard, and a bit clunky at times. (It’s a good thing our young  protagonist, Alec, is pretty ignorant, so that his mentor, Seregil, can keep explaining things to him. Alec also suddenly develops expertise at various things without seemingly trying.) However, this was Flewelling’s first novel, so I’m not dismissing the story out of hand. The setting and characters were entertaining enough that I’ve actually already picked up the next two books.