Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Title: Here Be Dragons
Author: Sharon Kay Penman
Published: 1985, Ballantine
Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 8/10

This is a great big meaty historical novel and I loved almost all of it. The setting is Wales and England at the beginning of the 13th century. The heroine is Joanna, the baseborn daughter of Prince John--the much maligned younger brother of Richard the Lion Heart. My sister reminded me of one of our favorite childhood movies, Robin Hood, and the song "Prince John, the phony king of England." The author's portrayal of John is really interesting, because while he does do some horribly ruthless kingly things, he is a good father to Joanna--showing that (in this version of history, anyway) he did have some good qualities.

Joanna is sent at the age of 14 to marry Llewelyn, the most powerful of the Welsh princes. It is a political alliance that Joanna agrees to out of love of her father, but the marriage flourishes and she comes to love Llewelyn. Problems arise later when the peace between England and Wales is broken and Joanna's loyalty is torn between her father and her husband.

This is a monster of a book (about 700 pages) and I loved the first 400 pages or so. But then it just goes on and on about John's wars. He's fighting Wales, then the French, then the Scots, then his Barons try a coup, and then Wales again. And I was little bored. I mean, is that all they did back then? Fight wars? However, the last 100 or so pages recenter on Llewelyn and Joanna's story and it's great again.

I'm a little in love with Llewelyn. He is a fantastic character. He apparently went down in Welsh history as Llewelyn Fawr, Llewelyn the Great. And he is--brave and honorable, intelligent and pragmatic, a good leader who knows when to compromise and when to stand strong. Joanna was okay, but Llewelyn made this book for me.

This book is an example of really good historical fiction. All the characters are real historical figures, and the author creates their world with such vivid detail that (though this is cheesy) it really does bring them to life. The title is genius--Penman explains in the afterword that medieval cartographers, when they had drawn to the extent of their knowledge, would write "Here Be Dragons" in the area beyond (isn't that cool!). She means it as a symbol for the lack of understanding between the Welsh and the English.

This is the first in Penman's Welsh trilogy, followed by Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning. I want to read those, but I think I need to rest a little before I tackle them.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

More icons!

Sister extraordinaire has made me two more icons:

For tear-jerkers. I don't usually read sad books (I don't do depressing), but occasionally it happens.

I'm calling this the "Jennie-approved" icon. See, it's a little me doing a thumbs-up. I'm going to use this for books that I really, really loved and hated getting to the end of. Books that I will definitely own and reread later.

Thanks Julie!!

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Not for me...

Used to be, I had this neurotic compulsion to finish every book I started, no matter how much I hated it. And recently I asked myself, why am I torturing myself? There are way too many good books out there to waste my time on something I don't like. So now I give it 50 pages and if I'm not enjoying it by then, then bye bye book.

So I just gave up on Black Silk by Judith Ivory (it's a Romance). I was hating the characters and the plot didn't seem to be going anywhere interesting. So I pitched it. Luckily I got it from the library, so I don't have to feel angry about wasting any money.
Title: The Last Templar
Author: Raymond Khoury
Published: 2006, Dutton
Category: General Fiction/Suspense
Rating: 6/10

This is one of the many books published lately that are Da Vinci Code copycats. As I liked Da Vinci Code (though I don't really understand what all the fuss is about), I thought I'd give it a try.

The novel starts off as four men dressed as medieval knights ride right into a gala event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and start pillaging and maiming (including a very theatrical beheading, hence the dagger). One of the objects they steal is an encryption device used by the historic Knights Templar. FBI agent Sean Reilly teams up with archaeologist Tess Chaykin to figure out who the "knights" were, why the encryptor was stolen, and what these men hope to decode with it. They discover that the Knights Templar had a great secret that, if revealed, could shake the foundations of the Christian faith.

The book makes some interesting and, I think, valid points about the merits and dangers of Christianity, and by extension all the major religions. Do not read this book if you are deeply religious, it will offend you. I had some problems with the ending, which I can't go into here without spoiling it for anyone who may want to read it. But I will say, who does Tess think she is to make such a decision?

Anyway, the book is pretty exciting. The author is a screenwriter and the book is really cinematic, with short little chapters that feel like scenes. I wasn't crazy about the characters, especially Tess, but they're not too annoying and anyway the book is about action, not character development.

So if you want some fodder for religious debates (and you're not so snooty that you think popular fiction shouldn't be allowed in said debates), then read this book. It'll give you lots to talk about.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

I'm a Thingamabrarian!

LibraryThing is the coolest thing ever. It's a website that allows you to catalog your personal library. It's linked up to Amazon and a bunch of libraries, so all you have to do is punch in an ISBN or title and with one click it will add it to your database with all info intact. You can enter up to 200 titles for free or as many as you want for $10 a year. And you can put personal tags on your books and then search by those tags within your libary. For instance, I put "Jennie's" or "Julie's" as tags for all our books so that on that fateful day that we break up this happy household, we won't have to fight over whose books are whose.

Another cool thing about LibraryThing is that you can view the libraries of other people. So you can go to the listing of your favorite books and see who else has that book and then see what else is in their library.

And they have widgets! Scroll down and you'll see that I have a cool new sidebar here at Jennie's B(ook)log showing random books from my library. Follow the link to see my library.

(Am I a dork that this amuses me so much?)

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Title: You Slay Me
Author: Katie MacAlister
Published: 2004, Onyx
Category: Paranormal Romance
Rating: 6/10

This one isn't just a donut, it's more like cotton candy. Sugary and delicious, it sits on your tongue for an instant and then is completely gone.

You Slay Me is the first in Katie MacAlister's paranormal series about Aisling Grey, Guardian--a mortal with magical powers who guards an entrance to hell. (Yes, very much like Buffy.) There are no vampires here, but there are dragons who luckily only appear in their human form. One dragon is the hot and sexy Drake Vireo, though he always seems to be wearing silk shirts, ew.

I'm not going to write about the plot, because I'm having trouble remembering it already. Some books are like that, you finish and think that was nice and the next day you can't really remember what it was all about.

Though the story and characters aren't the most original and the magical elements are conveniently vague, the book is saved by the fact that MacAlister is really funny. Aisling is sassy and impetuous, blundering into problems right and left, but somehow always managing to extricate herself--rather than being annoyingly rescued. And there are suprisingly few cliches (except for that scene with the sexy tango dance, that really didn't seem to fit.)

There are at least eight books planned for this series. One is out already, Fire Me Up, and Light My Fire is due out in November.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Title: Scandal Takes a Holiday
Author: Lindsey Davis
Published: 2004, Mysterious Press
Category: Mystery
Rating: 5/10

This is the 16th in the Marcus Didius Falco mystery series. In this installment, our hero Falco, a private eye in ancient Rome, is hired to track down Diocles, a newspaper reporter of Rome's Daily Gazette, who has gone missing while on vacation in Ostia. So Falco bundles up the family and heads out to the seaside town. He discovers that Diocles may have uncovered a kidnapping scheme run by pirates. And maybe he's run afoul of them.

I've read all 16 Falco books and the last couple have been a little disappointing. Has Falco grown stale?! I always love the setting of these--it feeds my fascination with ancient Rome, and I always learn something interesting (this time it's newspapers and pirates). And Falco is a great character. He's cynical and tough, but honorable and has an endearing soft spot for his wife. And it's been fun to see him turn from an incorrigible bachelor into a contented family man.

But I found myself struggling a little through this one. I felt like it was the same old, same old. I imagine that for an author it's really hard to keep the life in a series this long.

I've read on Lindsey Davis's website that this is the last book she's doing with Mysterious Press. Apparently her editor there died and the imprint decided to drop her. She's moving to St. Martin's for her next books and they are also going to reissue the early Falco books, which is really great because they've gone out of print and, in my opinion, they're the best ones.

I think the next time I need a Falco fix, I'm going to reread Silver Pigs (the first Falco mystery).

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Title: Cordelia's Honor
Author: Lois McMaster Bujold
Published: 1996, Baen
Category: Science Fiction
Rating: 8/10

I rarely read science fiction, but I picked up this book because of a comment posted by jmc on a Bookseller Chick post about Booktherapy (what I think of as comfort reading). Jmc listed her favorites as Austen's Persuasion, Jennifer Crusie's Welcome to Temptation, M.M. Kaye's The Far Pavilions, L.M. Montgomery's The Blue Castle and this book. If I was asked to list my comfort reads, I think I'd list those first four too. jmc is obviously a kindred spirit. So my foray into sci fi.

Cordelia's Honor is actually two books in one--Shards of Honor and Barrayar. The first book introduces Cordelia Naismith, who is some sort of interplanetary scientist on a mission to the planet Escobar. Her team is ambushed by a group of soldiers from another planet, Barrayar, and are forced to flee, leaving Cordelia in the clutches of Aral Vorkosigan, the leader of the Barrayaran forces. He is her enemy, or is he? While Cordelia is being held prisoner, her home planet of Beta Colony becomes involved in a war against the Barrayarans. Cordelia and Aral have fallen in love, but they are unable to help each other without also betraying their planets.

Barrayar is the story of Cordelia as Lady Vorkosigan (yes, of course they end up married!). The emperor of Barrayar dies and appoints Aral as the regent for his four-year-old grandson. They are plunged into civil war when another nobleman attempts a coup, endangering all their lives, including Cordelia and Aral's unborn child.

This is a huge reduction of the plot, because a lot happens in this book. It is fast-paced and exciting. And I liked Cordelia. She's a really strong character, lots of girl-power here.

It's full of interesting themes: The clash of two cultures--the rational, open-minded, scientific Beta Colonians vs. the more old-fashioned Barrayarans who are militaristic and Spartan in their intolerance for weakness. Physical and mental disabilities. Motherhood. Class conflict--Barrayar is ruled by the "Vor" caste, whose names all begin with "Vor" like our hero Vorkosigan (though this naming system is a little confusing for readers).

And while I know nothing about science fiction, I really liked the setting. Not so far out there that it was distracting from the story. No characters with tentacles or anything. Like they were normal humans but with cool futuristic gadgets.

So, while I don't think this will make my list of absolute favorite books, it was really good. I will definitely read more Bujold.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Title: Love Walked In
Author: Marisa de los Santos
Published: 2006, Dutton
Category: General Fiction
Rating: 6/10

I had a hard time deciding on a rating for this one because there were some things about this book that I really loved, and a lot I didn't like at all. (Rating books is not as easy as I thought it would be.)

Love Walked In starts off with two parallel storylines--one of a woman named Cornelia as she meets a man who she thinks is the man of her dreams. He looks and acts like Cary Grant, he's dreamy and oh-so-fabulous. The other storyline is about Clare, an eleven-year-old girl who has been watching her mother have a mental breakdown for several months. Her story is heartbreaking--she tries so hard to keep their lives together even though she's so scared. I don't want to give away too much more about the plot because it was so unusual and surprising that it's definitely one of the best things about the book.

I had a love/hate relationship with the writing style of the book. The author is a poet and you can totally tell--about every other sentence has a metaphor in it. And they are beautiful metaphors and sometimes she writes something that is just so true and lovely. But after a while, I was like, come on, let's move along here. Description is good, but I felt it got a little bogged down in places with it.

Another reason I didn't love this book was that I couldn't really like the characters. They were just all a little too beautiful, clever, and rich for me. And Cornelia weights 85 pounds, which is really not a way to endear her to the average woman.

But all those problems aside, I did enjoy it. It is a sweet story of love in all its forms--romantic, friendship, familial. I was afraid I wouldn't be happy with the ending, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Apparently it's already slated to become a movie with Sarah Jessica Parker playing Cornelia, which could be really good.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Title: The Quiet Gentleman
Author: Georgette Heyer
Published: 1951, Harlequin
Category: Historical Romance
Rating: 6/10

I discovered Georgette Heyer a few months ago and have since read many of them (my favorites are The Nonesuch, The Grand Sophy, and The Foundling). Heyer is credited with creating the Regency Romance genre, a genre that I love even if sometimes the books are horribly written. Since I can't command that Jane Austen rise from the grave and write more books, I'll take what I can get.

The Quiet Gentleman is Gervase Frant, the new Earl of Stanyon, who returns home from the Napoleonic wars to claim his title. At Stanyon he finds that his entire step-family (Gervase's mother was the old Earl's short-lived first wife) is unpleasantly surprised that he survived the war. Terrible accidents start happening to endanger Gervase's life and everyone begins to wonder who's trying to knock off the new Earl. The heroine is my favorite kind of Heyer's--not a Beauty, but practical and capable (like me, sniff, sniff). And her name is Drusilla, which is unfortunate, but pretty funny.

I thought the plot on this one was a little slow. I didn't breeze through it quite as fast as I usually do a Heyer. And I feel like I got a bit short-changed on the love story. I liked the two main characters, but they didn't really interact all that much until the very end.

So, not my favorite Heyer, but still a good read.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Title: Tied to the Tracks
Author: Rosina Lippi
Published: 2006, Putnam
Category: General Fiction
Rating: 8/10

This book isn't on sale until June, but I was able to snag an extra ARC at work. Rosina Lippi also writes a historical fiction series, Into the Wilderness, under the name Sara Donati. I love those books, so I decided to give her Lippi books a try. Her first book, Homestead, which I haven't read yet, but plan to, won quite a few literary awards. Into the Wilderness was such a different sort of book that her publisher asked her to switch to a pen name, which is interesting.

Tied to the Tracks tells the story of Angie Mangiamele, who runs a tiny film company in Hoboken, as she travels south to Ogilvie, SC, to produce a documentary about a media-shy literary icon, Miss Zula Bragg. Also living in Ogilvie just happens to be John Grant, a man who Angie had a short-lived but very passionate affair with five years earlier. Angie soon realizes that the fire's still there for both of them. But, of course, John is engaged to shortly be married to the town's darling. And all the town is in an uproar because they think the Yankee seductress is trying to steal John away from her.

I really enjoyed this book. For one thing, I want to move to Ogilvie (even though it's not a real place). Reading this novel in February in New York, a charming little town in the south in July sounded like heaven. And it so charming and real, filled with really funny characters. I also liked the fact that it is such a mature love story. Not that they're old, Angie's only 28 and John's 35, I think. But they had their summer of passion long ago, and then when meeting again realize that yes, this is not convenient and it's going to change their whole life plans and that's very scary, but it doesn't matter because this is the person who will make them happiest--if they can just get it right this time. I like the epigraph of the book-- "Happiness is the china shop; love is the bull."

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

I love Maisie Dobbs

Publisher's Lunch reports this book deal today:

Two-time Agatha Award-winner and Edgar nominee Jacqueline Winspear's fifth and sixth books in her MAISIE DOBBS series featuring a former wartime nurse turned psychologist and investigator, who solves her crimes against the backdrop of a post-World War I England, to Jennifer Barth at Holt, by Amy Rennert at the Amy Rennert Agency (NA).

YAY! I've read the first three Maisie Dobbs books and loved, loved them. I haven't heard when the fourth book will be released.