Wednesday, December 31, 2014

a cozy winter read

Gigi Pandian The Accidental Alchemist
This is a rather charming, cosy read, perfect for a winter's afternoon (to be published January 2015). It has quirky characters and could be classified as urban fantasy, perhaps YA, cosy mystery, or a paranormal romp. It's a quick light read.
Gigi Pandian previously has written the Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt mystery (ongoing) series. Her debut novel Artifact (2012),  won the William F Deeck Malice Domestic award. This  series includes Pirate Visnhu (2014), with Quicksand to be published March 2015. A short story The Hindi Houdini was shortlisted for both Agatha and Macavity awards.
Midnight Ink publishes this tale of a 300 year old herbalist/witch/alchemist Zoe Faust who specializes in spagyrics- plant alchemy which extracts the healing property's of herbs.  She is finally ready to settle down (Portland Oregon), buys and old house, starts to unpack, when all sorts of things happen. 1) The most wonderful character of the book shows up: an impish gargoyle who stowed away in her belongings from France and who desperately needs her help if he is to 'stay' alive (he's turning back into stone). But he is a master French chef and would be my new best friend if he'd just come live with me. I love his charm and name (Dorian Robert Houdin). 2) Handsome detective Max Liu, who is investigating a body that presented itself on her doorstep (thus preventing her house repairs). I hope the continuing series will develop their friendship/relationship. (The only two people in Portland who don't like coffee?!) And 3) the three adolescents (Brixton, Veronica and Ethan) who provide quite some comic relief while being relevant and real. I found them very predictable (except for the green smoothies!) but became so attached to Dorian I sped read through the book. I love that Dorian's father Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin was a French stage magician and clockmaker and the father of modern magic (a master showman and illusionist, 1805-1871).
Pandian is a breast cancer survivor who has learned carpe diem, and eating good food. It's easy to recommend The Accidental Alchemist just for the food- yes, I read the mouth watering descriptions and ever the skeptic (teenagers drinking green goo?? And loving it??!) that I tried several and definitely enjoyed them (I prefer chocolate colour, so used the cocoa instead; adult version?). Visit the website too.
Suspend disbelief, enjoy an imaginative little mysterious gem as a distraction on a chilly afternoon.

Read on
If you like Elizabeth Peters, Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr
3.5 stars
Read as an ARC ebook from Netgalley

"Did I mention that when I was born in Massachusetts, it was 1676?"
"The gray creature looked similar to the famous "thinker" gargoyle with short horns and folded wings. The main difference was that this gargoyle held an old leather-bound book in his arms."
"I have control of myself now, I simply do not understand why anyone would leave France?!"
"I do not think things make much sense when one has left France."
"Life is too short to eat inedible food because it is healthy."
"A false answer is often easier than a complicated truth."
"One of the very few positive things about living so long was getting to read so many books."

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Pictures from an Institution

Julie Schumacher Dear Committee Members

Dear Reader,
Buy the book, give it as a gift, loan out your copy, order it from the library. This epistolary novel is a laugh out loud tale not just for academics, but all walks of life. You may spend an enjoyable afternoon reading, but I preferred short bits, perhaps 4 or five letters at a time. (It's only 200 pages, but best if not digested all at once).  If you have any connection to the Ivory Towers you will recognize the biting satire, social criticism, and frustrating quagmire of politics and funding. It could easily be a diary.
The letters are quite clever, and reveal much about the writer, as an academic, as a husband, lover, teacher, at once observant while equally oblivious, generous but also petty, happy but unfulfilled.  One third of the letters are letters of recommendation, which in and of themselves reveal a great deal of society and expectations today. Sadly. It kept me reading to see how much damage he could do.... As a whole, it has a bitter edge, is a rather lacerating commentary on academic life but also full of human foibles, entertaining yet poignant. And lost. No one writes letters anymore, we have several generations that cannot compose an email let alone a letter. In retrospect, it was funny while I was reading it.
But I hope you will pick up this book and enjoy this lighthearted but thought provoking read.

A Gentle Reader

3.5 stars (note- this book also doesn't work well as an audio book- I barely glanced at who they were addressed to, but the addresses are properly read out, delaying the amusement of the letter.)

Read on:
For other epistolary novels: Jonathan Miles Dear American Airlines (2008), Maria Semple Where'd you go Bernadette? (2012) Joey Corneau Overqualified (2009).
Fans of David Foster Wallace should like this.
Reminiscent (campus, academic, literary lives) of Richard Russo Straight Man(1997, who also favorably reviewed Miles), Sam Lipsyte HomeLand (2004), Jincy Willet's Winner of the National Book Award (2002, recommended by Nancy Pearl).

Read as an ARC ebook from NETGALLY

Holiday short story

Deanna Raybourn Bonfire Night
This is a short story, the last in the traditional English holidays series (silent night, midsummer night, twelfth night and now bonfire night). At 56 pp it is not even a novella, and depends upon reading the previous stories, which are also greater appreciated if you have read the full novels, also in order. What a treat if you haven't discovered this author though! I read this as an ARC as well as purchased the ebook.
It is autumn 1890, amateur sleuth Victorian Lady Julia and her detective husband Brisbane have inherited a country property Thorncross in Narrow Wibberly. It is of course haunted but Brisbane has no difficulty solving this mystery. There is the usual witty banter, the eccentricity and mayhem we have come to appreciate and expect, and a warm family feeling completing a holiday book. This is perfect for an afternoon read, a satisfying story to occupy a train (or plane) journey or just a short break in your day.

4 stars for familiar short cosy mystery

Read on:
To the Amelia Peabody series of Elizabeth Peters.

"I cursed him inwardly. Plum had only ever been third favourite amongst my brothers, and I was reminded why."
"...and besides, strange solicitors showing up at odd hours speaks to an intrigue."
"In my experience," Brisbane said seriously, "gift horses are usually the ones with the most dangerous bite."
"The house was built of grey stone in a haphazard style and betrayed a certain originality of design."
"The woman is mad enough to be related to us."
"I've only just realised. Little Jack is the first Christmas present my father has ever given me," he said. "And he has given me the only thing of his I could possibly want."

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Back into the Dark Ages

Alys Clare  Blood of the South
Alys Clare is the pseudonym of Elizabeth Harris, who is well known for her Hawkenlye medieval novels and the Norman novels of the Aelf Fen series. She lives in the region and understands the ecology/ environment well, which coupled with her understanding of human nature and descriptive writing make her novels excellent reading.
This is the sixth novel, closely following the 2013 Land of the Silver Dragons. Indeed I highly recommend reading them in order if you are not familiar with this author. The character development and overarching plots are more interesting, and greater appreciated, although the individual novels can stand alone. I especially enjoyed Music of a Distant Star, read excitedly through Land of a Silver Dragon, and looked forward to the continuation of the story. Her novels can be long (800 pgs) as they are full of evocative description and peopled with fascinating (often interrelated) characters of their times.

Blood of the South follows two stories in Norman (1093) England, that of Lassair, an apprentice healer which takes place in East Anglia, in the fens between Ely and the Wash, and her partner, Rollo, a Norseman who is on a mission for King William (II) to Constantinople.
Lassair is young, but very insightful, learning to understand her healing gift, while growing into her magic under the tutelage of Gurdyman. Her kindness involves her with a stranger and her child. And Jack Chevestrier, Norman lawman, enters her life. Together they are compelled to uncover the mystery surrounding the child, a body ravaged in the severe flooding (torrential rain complicated by tidal conditions, which was all too appropriate this year in the massive flooding in England). This complicated tale is connected through the Mediterranean journey and political intrigues of Rollo. I enjoyed the alternating, complimenting stories equally.
4 stars

Read on:
If you like Susanna Gregory, SJ Ransom, Bernard Cornwell, Ariana Franklin, or Ellis Peters.

The opening line: "There is a collective evil that comes over a crowd of people intent on bullying someone."
"Gurdyman is the wisest of the wise; my teacher, my mentor, my companion and my friend. In addition, he is a wizard-..."
"Rollo Guisars, who is my one and only lover; the man who stays in my heart although he is usually far away and we are together only rarely."
"The seriousness of the moment struck home: beeswax candles are fearfully costly, and Gurdyman had just lit four. Somewhere close by, incense was burning; sniffing, I detected the strong heady smell of frankincense; another very expensive commodity. In addition I smelt cumin, dill and garlic. All four substances are used for protection."
"You'd be amazed how many folk don't know not to vomit into the wind."

Read as an ARC ebook from NETGALLY

Italian murder!

When is an accident a murder?
When the victim has had a pedicure...
Andrea Camilleri The Fourth Secret
This is a novella, (168 pages), which is part of a larger body of work: 16+ novels and countless short stories, which have evolved into a 9 season television series (26 episodes, with Luca Zingaretti as Montalbano).  Beware the translator, he is an Italian author, and those translated by Stephen Sartarelli are far better (Camelleri was awarded a 2012 crime writers international dagger for Potters Field, translated by Sartarelli). Sadly, this novella was translated by G Arizona and D Siracusa and often feels like a farce. There are also unforgivable spelling mistakes (eg here instead of hear).
The detective series (begun in 1994) features Inspector Montalbano (homage to a Spanish writer Montalban and his fictional detective Pepe Carvalho) who is a famous Sicilian detective in the Italian police force. Montalbano is a complex character, always clever, but often offputting to me as he can be very macho, mercurial, selfish. Yet I have continued to read the series, as each book is quite different. I also appreciate the European writing, which can be dramatic while stark, emotional while sparse. Do not start with this novella or you won't continue the series. Begin with The Shape of Water. I read them out of order, as I found them which might have lead to some confusion of character development. I intend to start with the television series as I have heard very good things about it.

Read on:
to Simeon (Maigret), Donna Leon (Italian detective).
If you like food to play a part in your novel.
If you like quaint police procedurals a la Agatha Christie.

"Certainly it was quite the situation, but the Inspector couldn't help but notice that Cadarella had a nice voice. ...ah, sir, you should know that when I sing, I do damage. I'm so out of tune that dogs start barking as soon as they hear me."
"Nine lines, including the title, at the bottom of the last column in the right. The page exuded complete indifference toward that unfortunate death, ..."
"And so the plot thickened and thinned at the same time."

3 stars