Saturday, January 31, 2009

Over the Sea by Sherwood Smith

Over the Sea

Over the Sea: CJ's First Notebook
by Sherwood Smith

Trade Paperback: 257 pages
Publisher: YA Angst
First Released: 2007

Author Website

Source: Bought from Books-A-Million

Back Cover Blurb:
Clair traveled about looking for girls who needed a home. She even came to Earth, where she found CJ, who did not fit. CJ found herself not only taken to another world to live, but she became the princess—Clair's "left hand splat." One of her jobs as princess was to write down their records. Another was to serve as leader for the girls when Clair was busy learning to become queen.

The girls had jobs too, as they discovered villains who thought it their business to take a kingdom away from a mere girl. From the shadowy Kwenz, a powerful mage with a very wicked past, to the usurper Glotulae and her son Prince Jonnicake, who in their ridiculous way were just as determined to boot Clair out, there were plenty of chances for adventure. And mystery, like why did kids from other times and worlds show up every now and then?

These are the early stories—how Clair found her gang of girls, and how "the M girls" developed the fine art of the Duel to the Pie.

Like Senrid, I think this story will appeal more to tweens and teens than adults. The kid heroes deal with their problems in very kid ways. The characters found clever ways to beat back the bad guys without using deadly force, which was fun.

Incidentally, we learn in this book how to pronounce many of the unpronounceable names also used in Senrid, but I wouldn't say reading Over the Sea otherwise made understanding Senrid easier.

This book is less polished than Crown Duel, but the writing is good and the story is much easier to follow than in Senrid. The pacing was good, the world building was very good, and the characters were very fun and interesting.

Incidentally, this book is really a series of sequential short stories about the adventures of the same characters (like a TV series) rather than a traditional novel. It's not problem, just an observation.

Overall, I'd rate this book as "good, clean fun."

Excerpt: Chapter One
In the beginning I lived on Earth.

Now, Earth is a big world, full of people, many of whom are happy and content and would never spend one moment thinking about other worlds, much less wanting to go to one.

Well, I wasn't one of those people.

I was eight years old, and I did not fit.

There was nothing dramatically wrong. Nothing what they called criminal in those days. Since that time I've met people--from several worlds--who were born into what anyone anywhere would call Evil and Doomed. Me, the first biggest problem was that I never really felt safe at home but everywhere else I went I felt like an outsider. Second, I did not like the things that everyone else seemed to like, or value what others valued. And what I liked and valued either got me laughed at, or punished.

So--third--I read a lot in order to find places in the imagination that weren't like where I lived, since I couldn't get free any other way. But almost every book I read, every adult I listened to--well, even kids--worked hard to convince me that "belonging" was my duty, and I ought to work hard to fit myself into the world I'd been born.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Trouble with Kings by Sherwood Smith

The Trouble with Kings

The Trouble with Kings
by Sherwood Smith

Trade Paperback: 325 pages
Publisher: Samhain Publishing
First Released: 2008

Author Website

Source: Bought from Books-A-Million

Back Cover Blurb:
Princess Flian finds herself the unwilling object of desire of three royals. Is the one she wants a villain—or a hero?

Waking up in a strange place, Flian Elandersi at first doesn’t know who she is. One wicked prince tells her she is secretly engaged to an even more wicked king who wants to marry her right away. But before that happens, yet another wicked prince crashes through a window on horseback to sweep her off her feet.

Memory returns, and Flian realizes that all any of them seem to want is her considerable wealth, not her pleasant-but-ordinary self. She longs to escape the barracks-like, military atmosphere and return to civilization and her musical studies.

Flian endures another abduction, this time in the middle of a poetry reading. Who is the villain? Prince Garian Herlester—languid, elegant, sarcastic? Prince Jaim—he of the dashing horsemanship? Or King Jason Szinzar, whose ambiguous warning might be a threat?

Flian decides it’s time to throw off civilization and take action. The problem with action is that duels of wit turn into duels of steel—and love can’t be grabbed and galloped away.

In many ways, this book seemed like a trial run for Crown Duel. There were many similarities, yet this book just didn't measure up in comparison. Even taken on it's own, it had a major flaw.

I did like many of the characters and the pacing was good. The world-building was pretty good, but I sometimes felt like the author assumed I understood things that this story didn't fully explain. She also occasionally and randomly threw in archaic words or phrasings that weren't needed. Despite this, I probably would have given the book five stars.

However, the main character, Flian, is very passive. The flaw in the story is that she never stops being passive or really acts on what she's learned to make a noticeable difference in her future. For example, she's kidnapped repeatedly, yet never sees a kidnapping coming even though the clues are all there.

Yes, she's nice and she's brave when it comes to her friends, but even she realizes she's always reacting to what other people do to her rather than acting to change things for herself. Even the few actions she takes are more of a reaction to other people's actions than a real effort to take control of her own future. She seems content to allow others to take action on her behalf, too, even in the case of winning the man she loves. (She intended to spend the rest of her life moping and feeling sorry for herself in that regard until others make an effort to fix the relationship for her.)

So, despite some wonderful elements, the book left me feeling a little depressed because of Flian's helpless view of the world.

There are some small uses of standard fantasy magic, but no sex or cussing. Something that might be a concern for some readers is that two couples (all minor characters) are homosexual, and these couplings are treated as acceptable and normal.

Overall, I'd rate this book "mostly good, clean fun."

Excerpt: Chapter One
I woke up.

By the time I'd drawn one breath I realized that if I'd had anything else to do, I ought to have done it. My head ached before I even tried moving it. I decided not to try. Some experiments just aren't worth the effort.

So I closed my eyes and drifted, hoping for a dream to slip into. Then the squeak of a door and footsteps banished the possibility of sleep.

I turned my head--yes, it did hurt worse to move--and almost panicked at the fact that I couldn't see anything until I remembered that my eyes were still closed.


That's how bad the headache was.

Eyelids up, then. An old woman looked down at me, her hair hidden under a kerchief, her countenance anxious. When our eyes met, relief eased her brow.

"Ah. So glad you have rejoined the living, child. Don't worry none. My husband's gone straight to them't should know, and you'll be taken care of proper."

I tried to talk, but it came out a groan. So I tried again, making an effort not to move my head.

"Thank you..." Ho! It worked! Though only at a whisper. I added, "Don't know who 'them' is...but if you think 'they' should know...I won't argue." It took some time to get that out, and though I was trying to be reasonable, the poor woman was looking more anxious by the moment. "Uh, what happened?" I finished.

"You do not remember?"

"No." Could be this headache... Where am I? I thought--or tried to think--but the process was like trying to chase fireflies in fog, only it hurt. "Uh." I made another discovery. "I know it's going to sound somewhat scattered, but I can't seem to place who I am, either."

"Those knots on your head would account for it," she said in a soft, soothing voice. "I've heard o' that. Don't worry none. Your memory will return."

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Dead Water by Ngaio March

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Dead Water
by Ngaio March

Mass Market Paperback: 220 pages
Publisher: St. Martin's Paperbacks
First Released: 1963

Source: Bought from library sale

Back Cover Blurb:
Faith healing can be fatal.

When intrepid octogenarian Emily Pride inherits an island, and the miraculous properties of its "Pixie Falls" healing spring, she is shocked by all the vulgarity. The admission fee, the Gifte Shoppe, the folksy Festival, the neon sign on the pub, all must go! But local opposition runs high, death threats pile up, and Miss Emily's old friend Superintendent Roderick Alleyn arrives just in time to discover a drowned body and a set of murder motives that seem to spring eternal.

This author's style is compared to Agatha Christie's. In my opinion, they are very similar in how the mystery is shaped and the clues hidden. If you haven't read a lot of Christie's novels, the solution to this mystery might even surprise you.

Luckily, the characters were enjoyable so I enjoyed reading the book even though I had the murderer correctly chosen within pages of the body showing up. And, of course, it's always fun to figure out the why's and see that you're correct.

I read this book with two other people. Neither of them identified the murderer until near the end of the book, though one correctly guessed who was the Green Lady before the end of the prelude. As in, the answer to the mystery puzzle is easier than some books but not necessarily completely obvious.

The pacing was good, though there were enough misspellings-to-imitate-dialect to make reading slower and difficult in spots. There is little cussing and no explicit sex. For those who don't like paranormal, let me assure you that the "Pixie Falls" don't actually have a pixie living near them.

Overall, I'd rate this book as "good, clean fun."

Excerpt: Chapter One
A boy stumbled up the hillside, half-blinded by tears. He fell and, for a time, chocked and sobbed as he lay in the sun but presently blundered on. A lark sang overhead. Farther up the hill he could hear the multiple chatter of running water. The children down by the jetty still chanted after him:

Warty-hog, warty-hog
Put your puddies in the bog
Warty Walter, Warty Walter
Wash your warties in the water.

The spring was near the top. It began as a bubbling pool, cascaded into a miniature waterfall, dived under pebbles, earth and bracken and at last, loquacious and preoccupied, swirled mysteriously underground and was lost. Above the pool stood a boulder, flanked by briars and fern, and above that the brow of the hill and the sun in a clear sky.

He squatted near the waterfall. His legs ached and a spasm jolted his chest. He gasped for breath, beat his hands on the ground and looked at them. Warty-hog. Warts clustered all over his fingers like those black things that covered the legs of the jetty. Two of them bled where he'd cut them. The other kids were told not to touch him.

He thrust his hands under the cold pressure of the cascade. It beat and stung and numbed them, but he screwed up his blubbered eyes and forced them to stay there. Water spurted icily up his arms and into his face.

"Don't cry."

He opened his eyes directly into the sun or would have done so if she hadn't stood between: tall and greenish, above the big stone and rimmed about with light like something on the telly so that he couldn't see her properly.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Eliza's Daughter by Joan Aiken

Eliza's Daughter

Eliza's Daughter
by Joan Aiken

Trade Paperback: 343 pages
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
First Released: 1984

Source: Netgalley, review copy from publisher

Back Cover Blurb:
A Young Woman Longing for Adventure and an Artistic life...

Because she's an illegitimate child, Eliza is raised in the rural backwater with very little supervision. An intelligent, creative, and free-spirited heroine, unfettered by the strictures of her time, she makes friends with poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge, finds her way to London, and eventually travels the world, all the while seeking to solve the mystery of her parentage. With fierce determination and irrepressible spirits, Eliza carves out a life full of adventure and artistic endeavor.

This book was not at all what I expected. First, the events in this book occur after the end of Sense and Sensibility. The Eliza of this book is the daughter of Little Eliza and Willoughby. The future painted in this book for the Sense and Sensibility heroines is possible, but I really didn't feel it was probable considering how S&S left the characters.

The author gives the heroes and heroines of S&S rather dismal futures and makes them into petty, weak, spiteful, jealous people. Not to mention that several of these characters where given physical characteristics (like a deformity) not mentioned in S&S.

So I ignored that this book was supposed to be a sequel to S&S. In that case, the writing is good, though the pacing was slow for the first 30 pages. The author obviously thoroughly researched the time period, and the vivid details immersed me into the characters' world.

The characters were all interesting and varied. Eliza, our heroine, seemed determined to rush head-long into ruin by continually making poor decisions. Though she makes a show of staying respectable, she seems to feel like she's fated to end up like her mother (pregnant, unmarried, and abandoned). This really isn't a romance book.

There are no explicit sex scenes, but some readers might not be interested in reading this book because Eliza does end up pregnant, unwed, unattached, and satisfied with that state of things. Overall, I'd rate this as a good book.

Excerpt: Chapter One
I have a fancy to take pen in hand and tell my story, for now that I am arrived, so to speak, at a favourable hilltop, a safe situation above water level, I may look back on such mires, floods, tempests and raging tides as I have encountered with a tolerably tranquil eye; besides, my history should serve as a guide (or at least afford some diversion) to those who may be at present less favourably placed.

While, as to the dark that lies ahead, who can chart it?

In short–and without further preamble–I’ll begin.

I have no information as to the circumstances of my birth, or even in what county that event took place; indeed I doubt if there is any record of it.

My first memories are of the year 1797, when I must have been, I believe, about three or four years of age, and, from the circumstances of my life, already a shrewd and noticing child. As an infant I had been, I heard, somewhat frail and puny, and with the unlucky blemish that caused me to be scorned by some and feared by others. My foster-mother, Hannah Wellcome, having at that period several boys in her care greater in size than myself, and fearful that, among them, I might receive some fatal injury (thus depriving her of my foster-fee) daily dispatched me with a halfpenny, from the time that I could walk, to the vicarage and the decidedly questionable custody of the parson, Dr Moultrie. With the halfpenny I bought three cakes at the village baker’s for my dinner; and Dr Moultrie, to keep me from plaguing him with questions, for he was a slothful old party given to drowsing away many of the daylight hours in his chair, lost no time in teaching me to read, and turning me loose in his library. There, having run through such tales of Tom Hickathrift, Jack the Giant-Killer and Gold-Locks as remained from the days of his own children (long since grown and gone), I was obliged to munch on more solid fare, Goldsmith’s History of England, volumes of the Spectator, the plays of Shakespeare, and much poetry and theology, besides Berquin’s Ami des Enfants and some simple Italian tales (in consequence of which I acquired a readiness and taste for learning foreign tongues that has later stood me in good stead).

There was one volume that I read over and over, The Death of Arthur it was called, and I found the tales in it of knights and battles, Sir Beaumain, Sir Persaint, Merlin the enchanter and King Arthur himself, most haunting; they held sway over my mind for weeks together. But alas! one day, absorbed in the tale of the death of King Hermance, I dropped a great blob of jam from the tart I was eating on to the page of the book. When Dr Moultrie discovered this, he gave me a terrible beating, after which I could hardly crawl home, and he locked the book away; I never laid eyes on it again.

However, to his credit, it must be said that finding me an eager pupil Dr Moultrie was prepared to emerge from his torpor for an hour or two each day to instil in me the rudiments of Greek, Latin and Euclid, besides a thirst for wider knowledge.

But I run ahead of my tale.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie

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The Secret of Chimneys
by Agatha Christie

Hardback: 232 pages
Publisher: Dodd, Mead & Company, Inc.
First Released: 1925

Source: Library

Back Cover Blurb:
A bit of adventure and quick cash is all that good-natured drifter Anthony Cade is looking for when he accepts a messenger job from an old friend. It sounds so simple: deliver the provocative memoirs of a recently deceased European count to a London publisher. But many people believe the memoirs hold scandalous royal secrets which they would do anything to suppress. Anthony Cade is also given a stash of letters (to, like a gentleman, return to the original letter-writer) that suggest blackmail. His only clue to find the letter-writer is an address, a rambling estate named Chimneys, where he finds dark secrets and deadlier threats.

I've heard Agatha Christie's books described as 'for those who like logic puzzles,' which is true. Well, this book not only has the mystery of who the murder is, but questions as to who steals the letters and the manuscript, who the mysterious thief, King Victor, is disguised as, and more.

I was able to guess some of the answers, but not all of them, and the story was very clever. The characters were all very enjoyable. The pacing and the suspense were good. There was no sex, and the cussing was minimal. Overall, I would recommend this novel as 'good, clean fun.'

Excerpt: Chapter One
"Gentleman Joe!"

"Why, if it isn't old Jimmy McGrath."

Castle's Select Tour, represented by seven depressed-looking females and three perspiring males, looked on with considerable interest. Evidently their Mr. Cade had met an old friend. They all admired Mr. Cade so much, his tall lean figure, his sun-tanned face, the light-hearted manner with which he settle disputes and cajoled them all into good temper. This friend now--surely rather a peculiar-looking man. About the same height as Mr. Cade, but thickset and not nearly so good-looking. The sort of man one read about in books, who probably kept a saloon. Interesting, though. After all, that was what one came abroad for--to see all these peculiar things one read about in books. Up to now, they had been rather bored with Bulawayo. The sun was unbearably hot, the hotel was uncomfortable, there seemed to be nowhere particular to go until the moment should arrive to motor to the Matoppos. Very fortunately, Mr. Cade had suggested picture postcards. There was an excellent supply of picture postcards.

Anthony Cade and his friend had stepped a little apart.

"What the hell are you doing with this pack of females?" demanded McGrath. "Starting a harem?"

"Not with this lot," grinned Anthony. "Have you taken a good look at them?"

"I have that. Thought maybe you were losing your eyesight."

"My eyesight's as good as ever it was. No, this is a Castle's Select Tour. I'm Castle--the local Castle, I mean."

"What the hell made you take on a job like that?"

"A regrettable necessity for cash. I can assure you it doesn't suit my temperament."

Jimmy grinned. "Never a hog for regular work, were you?"

Anothony ignored this aspersion. "However, something will turn up soon, I expect," he remarked hopefully. "It usually does."

Jimmy chuckled. "If there's any trouble brewing, Anthony Cade is sure to be in it sooner or later, I know that," he said. "You've an absolute instinct for rows--and the nine lives of a cat. When can we have a yarn together?"