Friday, April 28, 2006

Title: The Amulet of Samarkand
Author: Jonathan Stroud
Published: 2004, Hyperion
Category: Young Adult/Fantasy
Rating: 7/10

This is the first in Stroud's Bartimaeus trilogy. I'd heard of these books a while ago, but had dismissed them as Harry Potter knockoffs. But I finally read this one because Bookseller Chick said it was really good.

In the world of these books, magicians are an elite class who have no magical abilities themselves, but who have the knowledge of how to summon magical creatures to do their bidding. Nathaniel is a talented 12-year-old apprentice who summons a djinn, Bartimaeus, for the purpose of stealing the Amulet of Samarkand from his enemy Simon Lovelace. The amulet turns out to be an incredibly powerful magical object, and soon Lovelace and the government are chasing Nathaniel and Bartimaeus to retrieve it.

Nathaniel and Bartimaeus are both fantastic characters. Nathaniel is pretty complex--endearing as a lonely, unloved boy who is very smart, but he is also a little ruthless in his ambition. He wants to do great things, but it's easy to see that he is misguided. Bartimaeus is very funny. He is a millennia-old magical creature of great power, but he is constantly having to submit to being the servant of human magicians. He is consequently jaded and contemptuous of Nathaniel. But I loved that, though he complains about it, he does go to great lengths to help Nathaniel.

So I'm not going to gush yet, but this is definitely a good start to the trilogy. It is really original and imaginative and I can already see that the plot is going to go in some very interesting directions in the next two books.

And often with series, I don't really, really love them until further in. (For instance, I didn't really get into Harry Potter until I hit the third book, and now I am a Harry Potter FREAK. I love them to absurdity.)


Is it wrong that it amuses me that Harvard sophmore Kaavya Viswanathan, who sold her book How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life for $500K and got a movie deal, was outed as a plagiarizer this week? Apparently about 40 chunks of text were lifted pretty much verbatim from Megan McCafferty's Sloppy Firsts. Viswanathan's publisher has ordered booksellers to stop selling the book, saying that the author will revise the novel for republication at some future date. (See this AP article.) But who's going to want to read it then? I'm betting her career as an author is over.

Maybe I'm just spiteful.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

This and that

Twin sis Julie has joined the world of bloggers. Check her out at Julieree. She is a graphic designer/photographer/arts and crafts guru/all-around very cool girl and always has interesting things to say.

Discovered this week that there is a new quilting store in town. Purl Patchwork in Soho. It's a tiny little shop that carries mostly just fabric, with some basic sewing/quilting notions. Very nice selection of fabrics--lots of really cool reproduction/vintage-looking prints. I couldn't help buying some for my stash.

And I got a belated b-day gift from my Mom. This lovely T-shirt with a slightly snarky, but excellent Jane Austen quote. Anyone know which character says it? (I had to look it up.)

I finished my class last night. YAY! Now I no longer have to face the madness that is 42nd Street at rush hour. The plan is to take the summer off, then finish up my Certificate in Editing with two classes in the fall. I have not been overly impressed with the program, mostly, I think, because editing, being a solitary kind of effort, is very hard to teach well. A skill that is easier to learn by doing, rather than by listening to a lecture. But I have learned some, and yes, it looks good on a resume.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Homage to Mary Stewart

The novels of Mary Stewart were among the first full-length adult books I ever read. Lovingly handed down to my sister and me by our mother, they immediately became some of our favorite reads. We've been Mary Stewart devotees ever since. I think this is partly due to nostalgia, but mostly because they are wonderful books. We recently splurged at Alibris, so that we now have our own hardcover copies of every Mary Stewart. I love the old-fashioned jacket illustrations.

Mary Stewart is probably best known for her Merlin trilogy, which starts with The Crystal Cave. I've never really gotten into those, but rather love her stand alone romantic suspense novels.

Here they are listed from my most favorite to least:
  1. This Rough Magic
  2. Nine Coaches Waiting
  3. The Ivy Tree
  4. The Moonspinners
  5. My Brother Michael
  6. Touch Not the Cat
  7. Madame, Will You Talk?
  8. Airs Above the Ground
  9. The Gabriel Hounds
  10. Thunder on the Right
  11. Wildfire at Midnight
  12. Thornyhold
  13. Stormy Petrel
  14. Rose Cottage
Mary Stewart is one of those natural born storytellers. I think most writers learn the craft of writing over their careers, and you can see progress over the body of their work. Mary Stewart's novels are brilliant from her very first, Madame, Will You Talk?, which was published in 1954. She is one of the most consistent writers I've ever read. Her most recent novels (published in the '90s) are rather tame; I think her age took some of the edginess off her characters. But if they lack the exciting thrills of her earlier books, they are at least cozy and sweet.

Her novels always have a delicious setting, most in England, but also France, Greece, and Syria. It is always summer and the heroine is usually on vacation or at least traveling to a new place. Each enchanting setting is vividly described, and it's almost as good as traveling there for real.

I was recently at the Strand and found a beautifully preserved hardcover copy of my favorite, This Rough Magic. When I opened it up a little pamphlet fell out--the Literary Guild Review pamphlet that came with the book when the original owner received it in 1964. I did a little happy dance right there in the store. It contains an interview with Stewart and a summary illustrated with these fantastic drawings. I had some fun with Photoshop and added in little excerpts of the text.

Lucy meets Sir Julian Gale.

Oh, Max. *Swoon*

Such great adventures.

If you like to buy new, Harper has also recently reissued many of these books in mass market editions with very pretty covers. Every booklover should go out immediately and buy them. All. You'll love them.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Title: Lord Perfect
Author: Loretta Chase
Published: 2006, Berkley
Category: Historical Romance
Rating: 6.5/10

This was a much, much more satisfying read than my last. I've just recently discovered Loretta Chase, with Mr. Impossible. And I found a free copy at work, which is always a good thing. The cover is truly God-awful, what was the art department thinking?? And I think they should have come up with a better title. I know it's part of a series (with Mr. Impossible and Miss Wonderful) but still.

Lord Perfect is the eldest Carsington brother, Benedict. He is "perfect"--dutiful and good, never getting into trouble or creating scandals. He is thrown together with our heroine, Bathsheba Wingate, when his nephew runs away with her daughter to find a hidden treasure. Bathsheba is one of the Dreadful DeLuceys, a family originally of good birth, who have been cast out of "good" society for being unscrupulous and mercenary. When Benedict and Bathsheba fall for each other, even though Bathsheba herself is perfectly moral and un-Dreadful, she and Benedict both know that she would never be accepted as his wife. An impossible situation...maybe in real life. But this is romance!

Chase writes very witty, clever heroines. And there is none of the overdramatic histrionics that are so common in romances. Just good action, funny dialogue, steamy love, and a satisfying conclusion. Basically all the things I look for in a good romance.

There is one more unwed Carsington brother, so I'm sure he has a book in the making.
Title: Prairie Wife
Author: Cheryl St. John
Published: 2005, Harlequin
Category: Historical Romance
Rating: 4/10

I've been working on a really long freelance proofreading project, and after staring at every word of a manuscript saying are you the right word? are you spelled correctly? are you followed by the appropriate punctuation? I needed something easy to read for fun. Prairie Wife is another recommendation from Super Librarian.

I think this might be the first romance I've ever read that's numbered. Yes, it's Harlequin #739. I don't really know how this works, are all Harlequins numbered? And why? Anyhow, I am not a book snob. I like to think of myself as the anti--book snob. I think people who look down their noses at any genre are narrow-minded. But if this is an example of a good Harlequin, I don't think I'll be reading too many. It was just too formulaic and predictable. The characters were generally likable, but not really very interesting. I did like the western setting, though.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Title: Circle of Quilters
Author: Jennifer Chiaverini
Published: 2006, Simon & Schuster
Category: General Fiction
Rating: 6/10

This is the ninth in Chiaverini's Elm Creek Quilts series about a group of women who run a quilting retreat in Pennsylvania. I've enjoyed all of these books, but they are a little hit-and-miss. My favorites of them are historical novels, dealing with ancestors of the current quilters--Sugar Camp Quilt and The Runaway Quilt. (But then I generally have a preference for historicals.) The contemporary novels are good too, though The Christmas Quilt was, I thought, pretty boring. They're all sweet and nice, cozy novels where everyone is good and the villains are simply misunderstood or disagreeable. The books can approach the overly saccharine, but they never cross the line.

Two of the original gang of quilters are leaving Elm Creek, so applications are being taken for replacements. This novel is basically five short stories, each about a different applicant. Maggie, whose discovery of an antique quilt at a yard sale puts her onto quilting and changes her life. Karen, a young mother, who wants to re-enter the workforce and get away from constant mommyhood. Anna, a chef who is looking for extra money to allow her to open her own restaurant. Russell (a man!), who took up quilting as a way of coping with the grief at the death of his wife from cancer. And Gretchen, a veteran quilter, who is looking to get away from an overbearing and ego-crushing boss.

The Elm Creek quilters didn't pick my favorite two, but I think that the choices will work well for future novels.

One of the reasons I like these books so much is because I am a quilter myself, and they inspire me to get back to it. And Chiaverini is a good storyteller who can craft characters who, though they are themselves very ordinary, the reader comes to care about a great deal.

So, not my favorite Elm Creek book. (I think Sugar Camp Quilt is the best.) But still good.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Title: Ex and the Single Girl
Author: Lani Diane Rich
Published: 2005, 5 Spot
Category: ChickLit
Rating: 6/10

I generally don't have much patience with ChickLit. I really don't have the energy to go into the whole is ChickLit a valid or worthy genre?/is it undermining feminism?/ or is it a narcissistic and materialistic waste of time? debate. Personally, I read whatever I want and no apologies! I'm just usually annoyed by ChickLit characters, so I tend to avoid them. (For example, the Shopaholic books made me nauseous. I'm not joking--physically ill.)

But Wendy the Superlibrarian said this was one of her favorite reads of 2005, so I thought I'd give it a try. And I really liked it. Portia Fallon gets dumped and, feeling at a loose end, travels back to her hometown of Truly, Georgia. (It's set in the south, yippeee!) Her crazy family consists of the "Mizz Fallons"-- her mother, aunt, and grandmother, all of whom she calls by first names. There are shades of Ya-Ya in mothers who love their children, but are slightly resentful at the same time, preferring to be more friends than actual mothers. We learn that Portia's "Penis Teflon" (the way men won't stick to her) is a family trait. Portia decides to find out why the women in her family are constantly being abandoned.

This book is very sweet and funny. And it's not just about the all-important finding and keeping of a man. It's about self-actualization. Portia really does learn something about her family and about herself.

I think I'll look for other books by this author.
Title: North by Northanger
Author: Carrie Bebris
Published: 2006, Forge
Category: Historical Mystery
Rating: 4/10

This is the third in Carrie Bebris's Mr. and Mrs. Darcy mystery series. They are cozy mysteries--not really very good, but pretty sweet. The series picks up right after Darcy and Elizabeth's marriage. In each book they encounter characters from Austen's other novels who need their help in solving a mystery. I'm sure Jane Austen would be appalled, but oh well.

The plot is very silly so I won't go into it here. The second book in the series, Suspense and Sensibility, had a lot of supernatural elements in it (I can't remember exactly, but I remember something about a magical mirror), which I really didn't like. That's mostly gone for this book, thank goodness. The writing is often trite (like the title), but pretty harmless.

I think the only reason I read these books is to see Elizabeth and Darcy as a married couple. Mr. Darcy's obviously a really great husband. And they live at Pemberley. And they have a little Darcy in this one. Awwww.

This made me want to read Northanger Abbey (the real one) again. I don't think I've read it since college and can't really remember much about what happens in it.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Title: Don't Look Down
Author: Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer
Published: 2006, St. Martin's
Category: General Fiction/ Romantic Adventure
Rating: 7/10

I have been looking forward to this book for almost a year. Jennifer Crusie is, in my opinion, the queen of contemporary romance. Her books are some of my favorites--Bet Me, Faking It, Welcome to Temptation. She writes the best characters--quirky, hilarious, lovable.

I was excited when I heard that she was teaming up with another author for a collaboration. (For one thing, Crusie writes really slowly, compared to a lot of romance writers who can churn out a couple books a year. Maybe if she only had to write half a book, they'd come out faster.) And it is an interesting combination--Mayer writes military adventure novels, which are about as different from Crusie's as you can get. Crusie wrote the heroine's point of view, and Mayer the hero's.

The heroine is Lucy Armstrong, a movie director, who goes to Savannah to finish up the last four days of a movie shoot. The set is in chaos--the original director has just died, the prima donna actors are sleeping with/cheating on each other, the financer is very shady, and Lucy's ex-husband is the stunt coordinator and aiming for a reconciliation. J.T. Wilder is a Green Beret (a kind of military hot shot) on military leave, making some extra money by serving as a stunt double. J.T. and Lucy seem to be the only two sane people in the book. They get into all kinds of adventures and end up saving the day.

I was hoping that Don't Look Down would take all the things I love about a Crusie and just add a great, suspenseful plot. And it didn't quite do it for me. I mean, it was good and I think if I hadn't had these overly high expectations, I would've thought it was a great book. But it wasn't all that I'd been hoping for. So sad. The plot seemed a little overly complicated and the characterization and romance definitely suffered for it.

The collaboration part worked, though. I thought the writing was really good--the two author's voices and styles flowed together well. Crusie and Mayer are already working on their next book. I'll definitely still read it. But my reaction will be more a "oh, good, another Crusie/Mayer," rather than a "omigod, squeeeee!"

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Title: The Curse of Chalion
Author: Lois McMaster Bujold
Published: 2001, Eos
Category: Fantasy
Rating: 7/10

I recently read one of Bujold's sci-fi books and liked it a lot, so I thought I'd try this fantasy. I had also heard that it had a pretty strong romantic element, which you know I like. As with most fantasies, the setting is a medieval alternate reality, a world much like our own but with a little magic thrown in.

The story begins with the hero Cazaril returning home from a war, battered in body and broken in spirit. A nobleman who has lost his lands, he seeks employment at the home of the grandmother of the royse (like a prince). He is offered the job of secretary to the royesse, or princess, Iselle. While protecting Iselle, he discovers that a curse has been placed on the royal family and must figure out how to rid them of it before they are all ruined.

I really love Bujold's writing. They're pretty massive books, but in a good way--the pages just melt away because you're so involved in the story. And Cazaril is a wonderful hero--self-sacrificing, noble, and wise.

My only complaint is a slight overemphasis on their rather bizarre religion. And the thing with the tumor was a little off-putting to say the least. But all in all, it was excellent. A good tale of court intrigue and daring adventure--plus a very sweet, if subtle, love story.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Title: Secrets of a Summer Night
Author: Lisa Kleypas
Published: 2004, Avon
Category: Historical Romance
Rating: 5/10

I'm way behind on my posting. I've been busy with visitors and celebrations. But I will definitely catch up this weekend.

I've never read Kleypas before. I picked this one up because it seems like every time I read a review of one of her books, it's either a rave or a complete trashing. Few romances elicit such response. But I have to say I'm puzzled, because I thought this was a really ordinary romance. Not great, but not horrible either.

This is the first in Kleypas's Wallflower series. Four books each about a woman who's having trouble catching a husband in 1840s England. The heroine of this book is Annabelle Peyton, who has no dowry, and therefore no offers of marriage. And time is running short for her. She meets Simon Hunt and is attracted to him, but she doesn't consider him husband material because he is from a lower social class. A commoner who has made a fortune investing in railroads.

The only thing that sets this book apart is the fact that the hero is not some duke or earl. The novel shows that in this time period the landed gentry was losing some of its hold over higher economic and social spheres. The Industrial Revolution was well on its way. Savy businessmen from humble backgrounds were still looked down upon maybe, but they couldn't be ignored. Once Annabelle realizes this, she goes for Simon and his big bucks. (Of course, it's a romance novel, so she loves him too, but riches never hurt.)

Two more in this series are out: It Happened One Autumn and Devil in Winter. Scandal in Spring is due out this summer. I have no great desire to read them.