Friday, March 27, 2015

Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles



Mary Queen Of Scotland And The IslesMary Queen Of Scotland And The Isles by Margaret George
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Well, that was a slog. It took me months to finish this book, for several reasons: one, I never really connected with Mary as a person; two, the behavior of the Protestants toward her was just so despicable, I hated to spend time reading about all their plots and machinations to dethrone her; three, I knew how it would end, so there was no suspense to motivate me to read to the end. Despite these obstacles I finally finished it. I think I deserve some sort of medal - this was harder to read than War and Peace!

Let's address a couple of my difficulties, first the character of Mary. I expected that this book would draw me in to the characters and make me care about them, like Philippa Gregory's books. Sadly, I did not connect with Mary until the very end, when she was imprisoned by the English, after seeking asylum there. Up until that point, the book seemed to simply relate all of the events that happened to here (and a lot happens), without any personal or emotional sense. Once she was imprisoned, she seemed to be more human, and certainly more sympathetic. The last few pages leading up to her execution were extremely powerful. I would have liked to have had some of that personal connection earlier in the book, but I didn't.

The other thing that made it difficult for me to read this book was what the Protestants said and did. Now, I'm not a Catholic, and probably have some bias against Catholics (that whole Inquisition thing...), but the behavior of the Scottish Protestants was beneath contempt. The libel and slander were despicable, and their opposition to her was based solely on her religion. At least, publicly - as with all political opposition, it probably had to do with money and power, but they cloaked it in religious terms to get the backing of the general population. It was really quite hard to spend time with these horrible men. I kept having to put down the book because it would make me sick to think of how they treated her. I suppose the author should be commended for getting some sort of emotional response from me, when the rest of the book left me rather cold, but an emotion that makes you want to put the book down is probably not what the author hoped for.

All this being said, the book was certainly thorough. I learned much Mary Stewart that I didn't know. The author clearly did an excellent job on research. But somehow, all those details just didn't add up to an exciting book. It was mildly interesting, from a historical perspective, and only my love of learning kept me reading to the end. Overall, I was very disappointed in this book.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Still Life



Still Life (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #1)Still Life by Louise Penny
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is my first book by this author, and it won't be the last! It is a very good mystery - interesting characters, wonderful sense of place, excellent pacing. I sat down to read it around 3, and didn't put it down until I finished, a little after 9. I had to see if my theory of "whodunnit" was right! (And it was!)

The book is set in a rural village in Quebec, which the author populates with a great cast of characters. Some are likable, some are really NOT likable, but all seem real. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is definitely likable, but he, too, is very real. He's not perfect, he makes mistakes, but his heart is in the right place. His investigative skills are second to none, but his real strength (and what makes him interesting) is his desire to see his team members grow and succeed. He is very into teamwork and mentoring. And this actually plays a role in the development of the story, as he tries to bring along a new team member. His strength as an investigator is observation - sitting back and watching the villagers interact, talking with them, etc. In this way he learns about each suspect, and begins to develop motives for them. He and his team make some wrong turns, here and there, but eventually the killer is uncovered (of course.)

Quite early on, I figured out who the murderer was, but there was enough doubt that I kept reading. And the author's skill with character development and storytelling kept me riveted. The journey to discovery, and finally learning the details, made for a quite enjoyable read. Overall, it seemed like a modern Agatha Christie mystery, with better characters. For those who aren't into gunfights, car chases and explosions, this is just the ticket! This is a quiet, cerebral mystery, full of wonderful characters. Get a cup of tea, settle in and have fun.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Prudence



Prudence (The Custard Protocol, #1)Prudence by Gail Carriger
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is the first in a new series by Ms. Carriger, that takes place after the Parasol Protectorate series (Soulless et al) and in the same universe. Readers of that first series will recognize many characters in this book, though they play minor roles since this new series is based around the children of some of the original characters. I am a huge fan of the Parasol Protectorate books, so I was greatly anticipating this new book and series. However, if this book is any indication, it't not going to be as good.

I have two major issues with this book. The first is the general tone/tenor of the prose. Every scene is played to the hilt with over-the-top cheekiness. One can almost see the author saying, "Isn't this clever? Isn't this funny? Aren't I being ever so droll?" One of the things I enjoyed about the Parasol Protectorate was the droll humor. However, in that series, we were given little bits of it, spaced out throughout each book. This made the humor really hit home. Just as one enjoys sweets occasionally, and enjoys them all the more for this infrequency, a diet made up of only sweets becomes unbearble after a while, and one forgets why sweets were such a treat in the first place. Similarly, a book with little bits of humor sprinkled here and there is much more enjoyable than one where the humor is slathered on with a knife, and the reader can never escape it. It's really too much of a good thing! I had to keep putting the book down, because I just could not stomach yet another scene full of cloying humor.

My second big complaint is the egregious lack of proofreading. Let me list just a few of the most blatant errors:
1. The river in London is the Thames. While it may be pronounced "Tems" it is never spelled "Themes" - not even in America.
2. The pepper plant is the chili - with one "l", not 2!
3. The proper spelling is "quandary" not "quandry."
4."upclose" is not a word.
I won't even get into the poor use of adjective phrases, that leave the reader wondering at the target of the phrase. I am, frankly, appalled at the number and frequency of these errors. If this were a self-published book, I might be more understanding, but this book is published by a (seemingly) reputable publishing house. However, I fear for their reputation if this is the quality of writing they publish.

All of this notwithstanding, Ms. Carriger is a good storyteller, and overall, I enjoyed the book. The story was fun and inventive. But the unrelentingly cloying writing style, along with the poor quality of writing, keep me from giving this 4 stars. The fact that the Parasol Protectorate did not suffer from these issues makes it that much more of a disappointment for me. You can do better, Ms. Carriger!!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Shadow Scale



Shadow Scale (Seraphina, #2)Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4.5 stars, actually.

This is the sequel to Seraphina, and if you haven't read that one, go read it before reading this one. It's really an absolute must. Go ahead. I'll wait. ;-)

OK, now that you've read Seraphina (wasn't it great?), let's talk about the sequel. I was almost afraid to read this one, because I enjoyed the first one so much! Often, a sequel is just the author rehashing themes and characters from the first book. That is definitely not the case with Shadow Scale - it is much broader in scope, and a much more ambitions book, overall. And it succeeds on almost every level. I was completely absorbed by it - devouring it over a couple of days, and then wandering about in a 'book hangover' afterwards. I was almost shocked to realize that I didn't live in Goredd!

This book picks up right where the first one left off: Seraphina has been revealed to be half-dragon; a faction of dragons who do not want continued peace with humans has staged a coup, leading to a civil war; humans must prepare to fight dragons again, and to aid in that, Seraphina must find the other denizens of her 'mind garden', who are also half-dragons, so they can create a mind weapon against the dragons. And the love triangle still exists: Kiggs, the captain of the guard and betrothed to Giselle, the queen, is still in love with Seraphina, and vice versa. But the big development in this book is the re-emergence of Jannoula, a troubled and troublesome resident in Seraphina's mind garden. Seraphina had successfully 'locked her up' in the first book, but Jannoula finds ways out, and becomes the major villain in this book.

Seraphina's journey to find the others of her kind takes us all over the Southlands, each country of which is very fully developed by Hartman, as is each new half-breed we discover. These new characters are as distinct and different as can be, each with his or her own manifestation of dragon-ness. But not all desire to help, having managed to carve out a niche in society. Jannoula, however, is also doing her own style of 'recruiting', coming into direct conflict with Seraphina. Everything comes to a head at the end, with a satisfying conclusion. (It doesn't appear there will be a 3rd book in the series, unless things change from the status quo achieved at the end.)

Paralleling Seraphina's physical journey is her mental journey, as she discovers more about her mind garden, more about Jannoula's place in it, and more about how it is actually hindering her. She is also forced to realize that her motivations for 'saving' the other half-dragons were shallow, and self-serving. She thought she would be coming in as some sort of savior, but many of them did not need or want 'saving.' This is just one of many areas where we see characters growing and changing - and not just Seraphina. We finally learn Jannoula's past, and discover why she acts the way she does. I really liked the fact that the villain of the book was not just 'evil' but was acting out of what had happened in her life - much like real people do.

The themes of the first book - friendship, self-discovery and acceptance, fear and hatred of 'the other' - are broadened and deepened in this book. And the exploration of what motivates people (dragon, human, half-dragon) is rich and multifaceted. This is more than an adventure story.

One could think of Seraphina (the book) as a small string quartet: very intimate, with only a few major players, but hints of bigger themes. If that's the case, then Shadow Scale is a symphony! In book one, the action takes place exclusively in Goredd, and mostly in the city of Lavondaville. In the sequel, we get a tour of all the Southlands, as Seraphina goes on her quest. And instead of just a few main characters, there are dozens - human, dragon and half-dragon. But Hartman does a masterful job of introducing each one, and there is never a time of "Wait? Which one is this, again?" The major thematic developments are also symphonic in scope. This is definitely a magum opus!