Now Reading

Soulless, by Gail Carriger, is a fun vampire/werewolf/steampunk romp. Well done, Miss Carriger; might we have some more treacle tart?

Soulless (The Parasol Protectorate) is the first in a new series, and hooray! it’s a lot of fun from the very first page. It turns some of the conventions of vampiric literature all topsy-turvy, and it’s set in Victorian England, with all the attention to society gamesmanship, well-crafted fashions, and steam-powered gadgetry that such a setting entails.

Miss Alexia Tarabotti is my favorite kind of heroine; she’s not conventionally (or tediously) pretty, she has a mind of her own and speaks it, and she’s got a chip on her shoulder when it comes to her complete soullessness. As it turns out, she’s impervious to supernatural attacks and in fact can neutralize a vampire or werewolf simply by touching them, and is a registered preternatural. Intriguingly, she’s found it necessary to arm herself with a parasol of some heft, as it’s the only socially acceptable weapon-like object a young, healthy woman could have with her in public. She must have some interesting social interactions after dark to warrant arming herself.

She may lack a soul, and therefore natural morality, but she’s substituted a code of her own, taken from her wide reading. Although she’s attractive in some ways, she’s been told all her life that she’ll never be “on the market” for marriage, and is thus both “on the shelf” and a spinster, who has nothing to do but chaperone her younger step-sisters to society events and balls.

It’s at one of these balls that she encounters a rather stupid and badly informed vampire, and she is quickly caught up in a world of supernatural intrigue after her improvised defense with a sharpened wooden hair-stick puts paid to the hapless creature’s shabby account. And all because she was in search of tea, and a treacle tart, in the library – but scandal is averted when agents of Her Majesty’s Bureau of Unnatural Registry arrive to sort it all out. She admits eventually to one of these operatives, a rather grumpy werewolf with political connections, that she would simply like something useful to do.

An interesting aspect of the book is that vampires and werewolves are an accepted part of society, with very strict rules of decorum. Less appetizing aspects of their kind’s behavior are normally handled with discretion; werewolves don’t transform in full view of normal humans, and vampires may resort to a kind of sanguinary prostitution rather than simply attack strangers on the street without a proper introduction.

The dialogue crackles, and the story cracks on; I’ll be finished later tonight, darn it!

The next book in the series will be coming out soon – Changeless – but beware that there could be spoilers in the cover art and blurb for the first book if you click through to the link.

It can’t come out soon enough, if you ask me.

Books | The Man With The Golden Torc

The Man with the Golden Torc (Secret Histories, Book 1), by Simon Green

I’m about midway through this book, and although I’m enjoying it, it’s an exhausting read. I got on to it because of a review I ran across on NPR.org recently, which compared it favorably to the The Dresden Files) books by Jim Butcher. Both series feature male protagonists who walk between the mundane and magic worlds, but Green’s anti-ish hero, Eddie Drood, is British, somewhat of a Bond fan, and fully human and not really a magic user, although he has magic golden armor. Butcher’s guy, Harry Dresden, is a Chicago-based wizard who acts as a kind of magical private detective, and both have similar run-ins with witches, demons, murderers, and the undead. Drood is more like a secret agent-assassin, but in this first book, he’s chucked out of his large and influential family for some unknown reason, and is currently allied with old enemies in an attempt to survive and figure out why he’s become a shoot-on-sight target for everybody from his grandmother, the Matriarch, on down.

I liked the Dresden books at first, because I really liked The Dresden Files TV series with Paul Blackthorne (who takes amazing photos). But the books are quite a bit more violent and have more sex, naturally, than the old SciFi channel dared put on the screen. After about the 5th entry in the series, I was disinclined to read the next one, although my husband David has carried on with them as they come out.

I have hopes that these “Eddie Drood” books will continue to be enjoyable – like I said, “Torc” is pretty good so far, but exhausting. There’ve been a number of amazing battles, incredible escapes, and bizarre encounters all over and under modern London and the southwest of England… just in the first half of this book. It’s all a bit much of a muchness, but there’s enough interesting local color, intriguing character, and crackling dialogue to keep me turning pages. The sly nod-and-a-wink to the James Bond books (not to mention the fun magical gadgets and vehicles Drood uses in his escapes) are amusing, too.

I’m using a new plugin to pull in Amazon images and links, Amazon Reloaded. I already had an Amazon Web Services (AWS) key, secret key, and affiliate code, and although the plugin page warns that it’s not tested with my version of WordPress, it works fine, although the formatting on the buttons is a little weird. The search function is a little odd, probably due to inconsistent tagging on Amazon’s end, and it does seem to be missing an essential part of the link, the author’s name. I had to go look it up for both books I linked. In practice, it blends pretty seamlessly with the WP Edit Post page – it’s loaded into the center column, and can be dragged and dropped right under the edit form.

Like this:

Amazon Reloaded

See how the one button is floating on top of part of the text? I’m using Firefox with WordPress, but it’s probably a minor formatting issue that will be corrected in a later version. However, an author link with the title would be really useful. I had to visit the book pages to verify the author’s names, shouldn’t have to do that since the point of the plugin is to work from within the WordPress editing interface.

I used to do Amazon links a lot more when this blog was created with Movable Type, but the plugin I used after switching to WordPress was a bit flaky, and stopped working altogether after an upgrade more than a year ago. I’d tried something with shortcodes, but hated the way the result looked in my posts, so I’m really happy to find Amazon Reloaded!

More Tepid Than Intrepid

I’d like a mystery heroine to be less of a Mary Sue and more like Harriet Vane. Not like the protagonists in the first two “Aunt Dimity” novels. #fb
Amazon.com: Aunt Dimity’s Death (Aunt Dimity Mystery) (9780140178401): Nancy Atherton: Books

From Publishers Weekly

Despite its buoyant tone, this blend of fairy tale, ghost story, romance and mystery proves a disappointment. First novelist Atherton creates a potentially appealing heroine in bewitched and bewildered Lori Shepherd, but never places her in danger, thus sacrificing suspense. Recently divorced and newly bereaved by her beloved mother’s death, Lori is scraping by as an office temp in Boston when she receives a letter from a Boston law firm informing her of the death in England of Miss Dimity Westwood. Lori is shocked because she had thought adventurous Dimity was her mother’s fictional creation, the star of made-up bedtime stories. Courtly lawyer William Willis and his attentive son Bill inform Lori that Dimity left instructions that she and Bill go to her Cotswolds cottage to prepare a collection of “Aunt Dimity” stories for publication. They find the cottage haunted by the ghost of Dimity, who blocks their efforts to trace the secret of her WW II romance with a gallant flier. That all ends happily comes as a surprise to none but Lori.

I’d have to say that the review above, from the Amazon product page, is fair. Based on the other reader’s reviews, Atherton’s Aunt Dimity series is either loved or panned by mystery readers. I admit to giggling a few times as I read it, but also shook my head at how the main character came off as a total Mary Sue. It’s a wish-fulfillment story and then some; the setup is that all kinds of people have been conspiring to keep the protagonist, Lori Shepherd, in the dark about people who have her best interests at heart until long after they’re dead. She spends a lot of time grubbing around for answers when she’s been given the writer’s dream commission: free use of the most charming, yet cozily haunted cottage in the Costwolds while writing the foreword to a collection of “Aunt Dimity” stories culled from Dimity’s letters to Lori’s mother, to be published posthumously. And also, free use of a handsome young lawyer who seems to be unusually interested in her and the “Aunt Dimity” mythos. A childhood toy rabbit gets repaired, too, and is part of how Dimity communicates from beyond.

Although the story picks up a little once Lori gets to England and starts asking questions about Dimity Westwood, her mother’s wartime friend, it remains a frothy puff-piece to the end. There’s no physical danger or conflict to add suspense, and the romance is a big dud; William, the young lawyer (who lives at home with his stereotypically crusty father in their stereotypically grand Boston mansion), turns out to have known about Lori all her life, because he got his own version of “Aunt Dimity” stories as a lad. To him, she’s a dream girl, and he struggles with the reality of her as a defensive, cranky, wet mess. But still he loves her, as this is a Mary Sue story, and she must be loved no matter how unlovable she appears to be at the beginning of the book.

There are some rather engaging ancillary characters who become Lori’s fast friends; they’re almost like human agents of Dimity Westwood’s, after her death. Before she died, the husband restored the cottage to a lavish degree, and the wife redesigned the back gardens into a most un-English paradise. They’re the most fully realized of all the characters, and in fact the second book in the volume I bought concerns their first meeting, and their odd experiences in a Cornish chapel. They never actually meet Dimity in the flesh in that novel, but she’s seemingly just offstage in London.

Somehow, Dimity Westwood controls everything in the first book from beyond the grave, making astonishing repairs, moving things along, locking doors to unwanted intruders, and even communicating with Lori via a ghostly journal that writes itself and answers questions. The only mystery is what it was that broke Dimity’s heart and caused a breakdown during WWII, because she refused to talk about it to her best friend, Lori’s mother, and still refused to answer questions about it via the journal.

It’s all ridiculous and silly, and I was more than disappointed; I was irritated that someone could write something like this (and a number of twee-sounding sequel installments) and get published without resorting to fan-fiction websites and Lulu.com.

I originally started this post in August, and eventually finished the second book sometime in September. I actually liked that book better than the first one; more after the “jump” as I’m not going to put this all on the front page.

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When In Rome

San Clemente Church in Rome must be the real-life model of the church from Ngaio Marsh’s mystery novel, “When In Rome.” Although it’s one of her later books, and not the best of them all, it’s got its points, and the mystery takes place in the Mithraic temple 2 levels below the church.
Underground Fun: European Edition – Boing Boing

What makes San Clemente special is what lies beneath. Take the stairs down from the 12th century church, and you’ll find yourself in a previous incarnation of the Basilica that dates to the 4th century. The light is bad down there, but below you can see a crappy, but passable, picture I took from that level of the church.

But you know what’s even cooler than an old church with an older church underneath it? An even older building underneath that. You can actually go further down, and further back in time, to the ruins of 1st century AD Roman buildings, which were likely the location of a temple to Mithras, a sun god whose mystery cult some scholars think may have heavily influenced early Christian ritual and belief. It’s pretty badass. Unfortunately, the lighting really sucks down there. I’ve got no photos from that level and I wasn’t able to come up with creative commons shots from other sources, either. Although the church’s official Web site has some neat renderings and a few pics that you can see. I didn’t get a guided tour of the Basilica, so I know less about its history. But it’s definitely worth a peek if you’re in Rome and love old, underground things.

Reviews: The Language Of God, Inherit The Wind, Frost/Nixon

I started reading this book, but set it aside a while back. Now I need to get back into it, because we’re starting to get to some meaty stuff in the Adult Forum group I’m in at church.

Amazon: The Language of God

We’re discussing Evolution, Creationism Intelligent Design, and whether science and religion are as incompatible as some say. It’s a pretty free-ranging discussion group, as one member studied philosophy, another is a scholarly Jewish guy who runs the program, and the rest of us bring our own take to the party. For instance, I have a background or interest in evolution, paleontology, anthropology, and geology. But there’s also a lady in her 90’s who just likes interesting conversation and marvels at all the change she’s seen (and accepted) in her lifetime. And there’s a mixture of younger and older people batting topics around. It’s a lot of fun, but now I need to start doing a little more background reading. Vague memories of articles read during the week (and 30-year-old memories of college evolution and anthro classes) just won’t be enough in the weeks to come.

Inherit the Wind DVD

We started the series a few weeks back by watching “Inherit the Wind” together. I had to miss a couple of weeks due to my stupid winter sinus infection/cough, so I borrowed the DVD from the library last week and caught up with the ending Friday night. I already blogged about this earlier, but the ending didn’t hold many surprises.

I have to say that although I agree that this is a significant film, there are a lot of distractions that prevented me from really enjoying it and seeing beyond the rather creaky, stagy production values. I kept focusing on the odd details that seem ludicrous to the post-Millennial eye; did people really march around in Tennesee with beautifully printed protest signs, singing “That Old Time Religion?” Was the fundamentalist preacher character played by Claude Akins a Methodist or an old-line Episcopalian, as who else wore round dog collars all the time in the steaming hot South? And what was that junk they painted on his hair to change its color to grey? Also, David couldn’t stand to watch it because of all the singing, shouting, and praying that takes place in the opening reel, and he found the Matthew Brady/William Jennings Bryant character (played by Frederic March) excessively loud and annoying.

I’m glad I watched the movie, but the fundamentalist 20’s seen from the point of view of the post-McCarthy era 50’s made for a bigger suspension of disbelief than I was willing to deal with.

Last weekend my husband David and I went out to see Frost/Nixon, which we really enjoyed. First because it was done in a really naturalistic syle, and second because it took place in an era that we both lived through. The distractions of hair and clothing were there, but they were somehow a much more acceptable part of the experience because we both remembered when big sideburns and wide lapels on men looked cooool.

Also, it came in handy as background material for events of this week, during which our former governor evoked Nixon and the infamous tapes a few times on his rounds of the talk shows before he was ceremoniously booted from office. This might be a good DVD for the collection once it comes out.

Review: The Blade Itself

Just an hour or so ago, I finished reading[amazon-product text=”The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie” type=”text”]159102594X[/amazon-product], and had to get my husband David’s help so that I could do a proper review.

The book, in paperback, is an attractive, hefty size for someone like me that doesn’t like wimpy little short books about heroes, rogues, and adventure. The cover art alone made me want to pick it up and look at it; it’s made to look like a tattered old leatherbound volume, stained with blood and God knows what else. It looks like it’s been through the wars and back. One glance at the description decided me, as it promised something rarely found in this kind of fantasy-genre work; humor, irony, and interesting characters.

I haven’t been disappointed, either. It’s a solid read, and worth taking time over as the author has a vivid style that puts you into the middle of the action, and inside the character’s heads. You can almost smell the blood, shit, and spilled wine. It would make a good movie, too. Funny, and full of gore. Just what Hollywood is looking for: the next action-adventure franchise.

There are a number of characters and usually it’s hard to keep a large cast straight while reading, but each major character is unique and more fully rounded than you might expect for a first novel. In fact, one of the most fascinating is a terrible, terrible man, the Inquisitor Glokta. Formerly a respected military leader, two years of torture while held prisoner have left him bitter, but not quite broken. He’s now a feared investigator whose personal experience of his instruments of interrogation (pliers, blades, hot needles) enable him to know exactly how to put the screws to suspected traitors and law-breakers. Yet, he’s a curiously sympathetic character, because he’s in constant agony from his old wounds, and his bitterness makes him almost… almost incapable of human feeling. He expects betrayal and death from his Superior and the Arch Lector, but does their bidding anyway. Why? It’s something to do before dying. His internal dialogue, different from every other character’s, is set off in italics. It’s wickedly sardonic and self-deprecating (especially at those times when he’s most helpless and self-defecating).

Much of his activities (hunting down suspected tax-evaders and traitors in the Mercer’s Guild) appears to be a Macguffin, but there are some loose ends left, like the frayed remnants of one hapless Mercer’s poorly woven coat. That probably means we’ll find out more in books to come about what’s really rotten in the kingdom of the Union. Some of the political, sociological, and economic underpinnings of the world of the Middleland seems be commentary on something much more familiar. It remains to be seen how this will develop in the next two books.

A fair amount of the book is taken up by moving various groups of characters into place, setting up the events in the next book, [amazon-product text=”Before They Are Hanged” type=”text”]1591026415[/amazon-product].

[amazon-product]159102594X[/amazon-product]

The rest of the review contains plot spoilers; read on if you like…

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Not Recommended: The Vesuvius Club

The Vesuvius Club: A Bit of Fluff (Lucifer Box Novels)

The Vesuvius Club: A Bit of Fluff (Lucifer Box Novels)
Last night after a nice dinner at Bahama Breeze, my husband David and I decided to stop off at the nearby bookstore for a relaxing browse. After trolling the shelves, I ended up with two books, this one and a murder mystery set in the Upper Midwest. I’ve already finished this book, and I’ve started the second book – and glad of it.

The book was published in 2004, to critical acclaim, and there are two more books in the series.  Mark Gatiss, the author, has an impressive body of work already as a TV and radio actor and writer, and wrote two of the “New Doctor Who” episodes and appeared in a third as “Doctor Lazarus.” The book attracted me because the cover art told me it was going to be a witty romp in the Edwardian era before I even read the blurb immediately under the author’s name. It says “Darkly erudite and fiendishly unputdownable–Lucifer Box is the most likeable scoundrel since Flashman.

Ugh. Flashman. I’m not linking to the first book in that series.

I was introduced to it by a fan of the novel who fancied himself to be a real-life Harry Paget Flashman; his hero was a fictional cad, soundrel, coward, and rapist. This fan was someone I dated briefly decades ago, who liked to dress up in historical costumes and flounce about the countryside re-enacting bits of the Civil War, leading imaginary piratical incursions, and wearing Scottish drag. He was most vain man, with the least reason for it, I’ve ever met.

Pause to shudder and grimace. Pause over.

So a recommendation comparing this novel favorably to “Flashman” should have lit up a big, red warning sign, but it promised to be witty, and so I went ahead and started it. Finished it, too.

Sure, it’s a quick, fast read. But I can’t really recommend this book – the protagonist is an insufferable twit, even if he makes me laugh fairly often. It’s a guilty laugh, because he says and does a number of unforgiveable things. Also, the author makes Box so much larger than life that all other characters appear merely to serve as foils for Box to show off.

The most regrettable thing about Lucifer Box is that he appears to be a clever, well-written, and sexually omnivorous Mary Sue.

Mary Sue is any original or deeply altered character who represents a slice of his/her creator’s own ego; s/he is treasured by his/her creator but only rarely by anyone else. More negatively, a Mary Sue is a primadonna (usually but not always badly-written) who saps life and realism out of every other character around, taking over the plot and bending canon to serve his/her selfish purposes. — Mary Sue: An Explanation

The author draws a little too deeply from the classical Whovian Well of Cybermen, too. It’s a nice, deep well, and this book would be a good basis for a Captain Jack Harkness flashback with plenty of camp and period costume and steampunkery, but the other characters in the book are given such short shrift (and the main character uses them so shabbily) that they’d have to be completely re-written to “work.”

Yes, I chuckled as I read, but I also shook my head.

I knew which character would turn out to betray Lucifer Box in the end – it was a little too obvious almost from the moment of introduction. I even knew which prop would turn out to be a plot device, because with as unsentimental a scalliwag as Box is written to be, it was out of character for him to haul a bit of tat with him on a long journey because it reminded him of someone. I also knew that somebody watched a few too many James Bond movies in his youth – there were no frickin’ sharks with frickin’ laser beams on their heads, but only from the lack of liquid water at the evil genius’ mountain lair. Everything else was in place, though. Including a thing like an infernal gumball machine, undead purple-brained zombies, and a madman’s plan to destroy the Earth (while wearing an outrageous costume).

The sex scenes (and there are fewer than you might expect) are depicted in a not-terribly-salacious way, more in the “Aren’t I a naughty boy” vein than anything. Lucifer Box will debauch anything that moves, so long as it’s pretty and slim. He spends a lot of time in late Victorian lavs, and there seem to be a lot of dwarfs about. About the only thing that he mourns is his wardrobe, as it gets destroyed in every set-to with the bad guys. He hardly spares a thought for a minion who gets shot, assuming idly that it was fatal, until he’s somewhat surprised to find it was not.

Not a nice man, Lucifer Box. Destined to have and deserve a bad end. Unfortunately, based on the descriptions of the next two books, he’s destined to be immortal in some way – another classic Mary Sue touch. Not recommending this one.

Hot Ferret Love!

As a former Highlander fan, denizen of the Big List where ferret and weasel jokes were rife (long story), I had to read this tale of the bodice-ripping plagiarism case that somehow involves black-footed ferrets.
For one thing, the author of the offending bodice-ripper is from Mattoon, IL, not far from where some Highlander fans gathered a few years ago for a mini-convention and garage sale of HL-themed gifts. It’s not the kind of place where there are many bodices, let alone where they get ripped.  But it is the kind of place where people who read trashy novels live and dream. Thank goodness for people like the Smart Bitches, who read this crap so the rest of us need not bother with the stuff that truly isn’t worth reading.

I  won’t be reading any romance novels (ever), but I admire women who take them seriously enough to ferret out the good ones, and snark on the bad ones. Heh.

Below, the author whose non-fiction article was one of many sources found almost word-for-word in the novelist’s book, describes how sexy it is to study ferrets and write about their hot, steamy relations.

Move Over, ‘Meerkat Manor’ | Newsweek Books | Newsweek.com

Nocturnal, ferrets come out after dark to hunt for prairie dogs, their main source of food. With Livieri at the wheel of his pickup truck, we bounced down rutted dirt roads alongside the prairie dog colonies that fill the Conata Basin—a federal grassland near Badlands National Park. Researchers find ferrets by shining a spotlight on the moonscapelike setting of a prairie dog town. From dusk until nearly dawn we sat in Livieri’s truck—two dudes looking for weasels. Nobody said science was sexy.After three days in Wall, where the highlight is visiting the famous Wall Drug Store, I could hardly leave town fast enough. I returned home and wrote the story for the Summer 2005 issue of Defenders magazine, which detailed how ferrets in the Conata Basin were being threatened by a federal effort to poison prairie dogs.

Had I known that my text would one day appear in a romance novel, I might have sexed up my story: “Hot-loving polecats do it in prairie dog holes.”

h/t Salt Blog, and thanks for the good laugh!

Where Is Stephen’s Hat?

Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report (mind the silent Ts) hijacks Maureen Dowd’s NYT column to note that although his hat is not in the ring, it’s not on his head… and his new book is in stores now.

Also, he ghost-writes Frank Rich’s column too. His work there done.
Actually, if Stephen Colbert ran for office, he should seriously think about an extremely manly religious blogger/Saviour as a running mate: Jesus’ General.

I Am an Op-Ed Columnist (And So Can You!)

By STEPHEN COLBERT

Surprised to see my byline here, aren’t you? I would be too, if I read The New York Times. But I don’t. So I’ll just have to take your word that this was published. Frankly, I prefer emoticons to the written word, and if you disagree 🙁
I’d like to thank Maureen Dowd for permitting/begging me to write her column today. As I type this, she’s watching from an overstuffed divan, petting her prize Abyssinian and sipping a Dirty Cosmotinijito. Which reminds me: Before I get started, I have to take care of one other bit of business:

Bad things are happening in countries you shouldn’t have to think about. It’s all George Bush’s fault, the vice president is Satan, and God is gay.

There. Now I’ve written Frank Rich’s column too.

So why I am writing Miss Dowd’s column today? Simple. Because I believe the 2008 election, unlike all previous elections, is important. And a lot of Americans feel confused about the current crop of presidential candidates.